Columbus, Ohio USA
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To Market, To Market...
The Fish Guy and more
By Greg Knepp
October 2009 Issue

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© Illustration by Greg Knepp

“Steamed blue channel crabs?” I was incredulous.

“Yep – Chesapeake Bay.” The unshaven young man in the white apron was deadpan.

I turned to Kathleen at my side, “They’re large but they’re probably whities.” Kathleen, like me, is a Baltimore expatriate and therefore well-schooled in lingo pertaining to shellfish. But the comment had not escaped the youthful “Fish Guy” behind the counter.

“Here, check the weight.” He picked up a crab with a square of paper wrap and handed it to me.

The heaviness was surprising and my suspicion melted. It was a Jimmy! – bursting with sweet white flesh just before its late-season molt. “I’ll take four.”

As he bagged them he added, “We got soft shells too.”

Later that evening as Kathleen and I ripped the limbs from the Martianesque crustaceans to suck forth their delicate musculature, we realized at once that these crabs rivaled any that we’d eaten back east. And at $25 a dozen – a steal!

Exotica is great, and the North Market has its share: rare wines, fine chocolates, hand-painted tote bags, designer popcorn, esoteric kitchen gizmos, savory eats from around the globe to consume on the spot or take home; the list goes on. But the market tradition is really about local goods. The earliest settlements that could be called towns birthed market districts, usually squares where farmers would bring their produce to sell or swap with each other and the townspeople (themselves often involved in some craft – tanning, tinkering, baking, etc. – that supported the dominant agricultural economy). In addition, harlequins, poets, troubadours, and even politicians exploited market gatherings, as pickpockets, pilferers, preachers, prostitutes and flimflam artists of all stripe practiced their dark trades on the fringes. The kindergarten of culture and humankind’s humorous and often heartbreaking attempt at civilization – that’s the town market! And while professional merchants and stores (where goods and produce are stored) came on line early in history, the town market model remained intact for millennia.

Then came the twentieth century. The industrial revolution, fuelled by ever-cheaper quantities of fossil fuels, had the effect of expanding the store system to the detriment of town markets. Refrigeration, mechanized transport, the establishment of mass marketing through advertising and supermarkets, along with the demise of local farming in the face of corporate agribusiness and suburban sprawl – these all conspired to make the town market largely obsolete. Only a remnant survive in America, notably Seattle’s Pike Place, Lexington Market and Cross Street Market in Baltimore, Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand and, yes, our own North Market, to name a few. A handful of establishments carry on as traditional markets, but many have morphed into quaint caricatures of their former selves, havens for yuppies and nostalgia buffs yearning for a taste of yesteryear and some creative gift shopping to boot. Boston’s Faneuil Hall Market and Baltimore’s Broadway Market are examples of this vacuous market-as-motif syndrome.

But what of the North Market? There were a number of markets in Columbus until the mid-twentieth century. The North Market survived as the others withered, and did rather well until a fire destroyed it in 1947. A comical Quonset hut was slapped together to house the remaining merchants. From there they sold their produce until the mid-’80s, at which time the hut was razed and the market moved next door to an old factory on Front Street, its present location.

I must confess, I was a little worried at first. The new location was a little too pat, a little too clean. Some of the old merchants hadn’t made the move, and in downtown Columbus (little more than an asphalt desert of surface parking interrupted by a few office buildings) there were precious few residents to fuel the new establishment’s need for regular customers. Short North and Vic Village folks crowded the place on Saturdays, and office workers stopped in for lunch during the week, but the meat-and-potatoes of a town market is the shopper interested in buying good fresh food for the home table. Without this customer all that’s left is a trendy food court. The result was a near-empty market during prime shopping hours, and a growing number of vacant stall spaces.

Then things began to turn around. The Market District started to flower as the adjacent Arena District sprang up and provided housing for an odd combo of young professionals and rich empty-nesters. The I-670 cap helped unite the Short North and the Market District. More people, more accessibility – more business for the Market! But is the North Market simply a cutesy vestige of better days, or is it a vibrant emporium where creativity and enterprise meet? Crabs secured, Kathleen and I continued our stroll about the Market to find out.

We walked around, talking with various vendors as we went. Cheryl Smith at the Bluescreek Farm stall told us that her Marysville farm raises only natural, hormone-free livestock. I’ve had her beef and it’s terrific if pricey, but I was surprised to learn that she raises goats as well. Next door, I conversed with Taunya at CaJohns stand which sells a dizzying array of salsas, all made locally at their small plant in north Columbus. Omega Artisan Breadmaking, occupying the southwest corner stall, bakes a goodly variety of bread on premise, always fresh and tasty! The Market’s produce merchants and florists also sell mostly locally grown goods. For craft items, elixirs, supplements, gifts and cards, Better Earth and its sister stand, Beyond Beads, provide a broad mix of locally and nationally produced items. In fact, I drink their Columbus-brewed Kombu Tea regularly. As we continued through the crowded isles conversing with customers and merchants alike, it occurred to me that there was more homegrown stuff for sale at the North Market than I had realized.

Meanwhile, outside, the Saturday Farmer’s Market was going full-steam, where virtually everything being offered was from in-state: honey from Honeyrun Farm in Williamsport, truly delectable cheeses from Oakvale Farmstead in London, yummy fruit pies from Stevens Bakery and Orchard in Springfield, just to name a few. Craft items were moving as well. There were a few stands selling handmade jewelry, and Casey Cahoy’s stand, featuring his own cutting-edge T-shirt designs, hand-screened right here in Columbus on American-made garments. All the while a Bluegrass (or Old Time, I get them confused) band played their mostly acoustic instruments from the large east veranda, providing a fitting background score for the good times, camaraderie and fine shopping at the North Market that sunny, Saturday afternoon – great fun!

Greg and Kathleen with the Fish Guy (left), Doug Denny [©Photo/Rick Borgia]

So is it all good news for the North Market? Not quite; for instance, I’d like to find a stand that consistently serves up a good cup of coffee – not a tub of coffee but a cup! And why can’t that designer ice cream joint sell some conventional flavors at reasonable prices for us traditionalists? And wouldn’t it be nice to wash down your Barry’s corn beef sandwich with a cold beer – what would be so scandalous about that? And since the Fish Guys already sell steamed crabs, why not go all-out and open a raw bar too? Kathleen and I are certain to be there to slurp down some blue points and cherrystones. And why does one of the Market’s only hot dog vendor consistently feature only a single, lonely bratwurst on his rotisserie? That solitary brat is going to make me nuts someday!

But these are trifling concerns and largely subjective. In fact the North Market gives every indication of being a stunning success. Timing is one reason. As the nation braces for future rounds of energy shocks (and they will come), businesses and consumers look for produce and manufactured goods made closer to home to avoid inflated shipping costs. Also, the oil-related demise of suburbia will open up more local land for farming. In short, the agricultural business model of the last 60 years will begin to swing in reverse, favoring town market distribution of locally produced goods and foodstuffs over the proverbial thousand-mile Caesar salad. Then there’s location: As downtowns are re-inhabited, town markets will flourish with a wave of new customers. Just look at what’s grown up around the North Market in only the last few years! Last but not least there are the merchants themselves: fearless, optimistic cottage entrepreneurs willing to risk all on a few basic business ideas as old as time – that through creativity, hard work and an iron ego one will be able to capture the interest of the discerning buyer by providing a product or service that excels, and that human contact is the very stuff of enterprise, not a hindrance to same. Entrepreneurs like Pam the Popcorn Lady, and Taunya, and Cheryl Smith, and Alex with his plastic-wrapped tuna sandwiches, and Casey the T-shirt dude, and let’s not forget the Fish Guys… really the whole damn bunch associated with the North Market. They’re great, and, perhaps unknowingly, they’re moving the future our way.

© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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