For years I drove from Bon Air to go to the 17th Street Farmers’ Market after the spring apples came in. Then I visited through the summer and fall for, especially, tomatoes and peaches.
I made the trip for two major reasons: freshness and price. I’ll drive to get good, fresh vegetables at a reasonable price.
I don’t shop at 17th Street Market anymore.
Thus, I am part of the problem that has Lee Downey, the city’s new economic development director (the 15th in 15 years) and overseer of the market, and the Farmers’ Market Association wringing their hands.
Why did I stop shopping there and why on a recent Thursday morning were there just three vendors and a handful of shoppers at the market?
I don’t know, but I can tell you why this faithful 17th Street Market shopper stopped visiting.
On my most recent shopping trip, I found tomatoes at one of the two stalls were $2.50 a pound. A pound produced two tomatoes — $1.25 each. Even I don’t like them that much. They were $2 at another stall. The previous week at Pole Green Market in Hanover County they were $1.29 a pound. At Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market, a grocery store in Henrico County, Hanover tomatoes were 99 cents a pound. Green peppers at 17th Street were $1 each at one stall; they were two for $1 at Pole Green and much better quality.
What was most frustrating was that even with just four shoppers at the downtown market, I was stumped about where to park. At the old market, you could drive up to a stall, hop out, make your purchase and be gone in minutes. With no-parking signs nailed to the market posts down the entire sidewalk, I drove off to look for a parking place. This entailed turning right onto Franklin Street, then going around the block, back to drive through a parking lot and down 16th Street to take a left on Main, and back to 17th Street for another try.
When I stopped in front of the vendor at the corner of 17th and Main streets to ask where I could park, he instructed: “Oh, you can stop right there if you’re going to buy something.”
“But it says ‘No Parking,’” I replied.
“It’s OK,” he said.
So I stopped at the no-parking sign to buy two expensive tomatoes and a watermelon. A long trip for a very few purchases and a parking hassle.
The slide of the market began, I think, when the new and improved market, designed by Richmond architectural firm Glave and Holmes (formerly Glave, Newman and Anderson) was completed in 1986.
Certainly far more attractive than the shed-type coverings of vendors at the old market, the green and white-striped awning effect and the green tin roof, was an improvement. It definitely added to the ambiance of the market area. Glave and Holmes apparently is proud of the structure, which is featured on its website.
But I can’t believe that any of the designers had ever shopped at the market and, certainly, didn’t include the counsel that at least one vendor says was provided to the architects.
The longtime vendor, whose farmers’ market experience goes back to the Sixth Street Market (the old farmers’ market, not the failed shopping center) that existed from the 1800s to the late 1960s, agrees that the design of the market is a handicap and didn’t improve business — just discouraged shoppers.
It’s awkward to visit and equally awkward for vendors, at least it was when I visited. Another vendor tried to send a shopper to the back of her stall for a look at more tomatoes. Not easily done.
But the no-parking signs are the final killer.
My trip was just two days before the 10th annual Tomato Festival. The vendors weren’t looking forward to it. Why? The street would be full of people, they said. Consequently, there’d be no parking. They weren’t expecting much benefit from vegetable sales on the day of the festival. Meanwhile, at a recent meeting of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market supporters, more events and festivals were suggested as a “save the market” solution.
Maybe. But hardcore produce shoppers like me are looking for fresh, affordable produce — not loud bands, crafts or homemade soap. The festivals attract a different crowd.
The many farmers’ markets that have cropped up around town often are cited as the real culprit in the downtown market’s decline. The newer markets are indeed a wonderful convenience, but they didn’t bring 17th Street to its knees. The decline was well under way when the neighborhood farmers’ markets got going.
Neighborhood markets are useful if you learn which day the market near you is open. An online calendar from the Virginia Department of Agriculture helps with the dates. Nevertheless, according to the calendar the 17th Street Farmers’ Market is open on Thursdays and Sundays. That can’t help the handful of vendors who continue to have stands there every day.
Want to see a successful farmers’ market? Go to Roanoke. The market in downtown Roanoke has been there since the 1800s. It’s open every day of the year but Christmas and New Year’s Day. When I go to Roanoke, I try to go there for the reliably good selection, quality and price of produce. Promise of a remarkable hot dog from the famed Roanoke Weiner Stand is another inducement.
If you can’t get to Roanoke, check the website: downtownroanoke.org. Pictures feature every vendor and describe what each sells and when. Right now, the market site is featuring peaches from local orchards — events, too, on Saturdays.
Then check out the Farmer's Market page on the Richmond Government web site. You’ll see events listed for last February and not much else.
You’ll also see a distinct difference in the two sites.
We could learn some lessons from Roanoke.
Nancy Finch is a former food editor for The Richmond Times-Dispatch and former food columnist for Cooperative Farmer and Cooperative Living.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.