Ever since we first moved into our subdivision, nearly two years ago, a small lot has stood vacant at the entrance, for sale. We wondered who or what would ever end up on that property, and would it be a boon or bust for our neighborhood. So, the place really exists. Maybe that gives this particular daydream something more of a foothold in reality.
Sunday, September 11
It is cool and pleasant outside and we are getting ready to close for the evening. Wow, it has been a good day. We sold almost all our fresh produce and bread and cheese. We sold a bunch of S.’s soaps and lotions and gift baskets. More than twenty people signed up for next week’s cooking class, bringing the total to over forty. Mental note, get more chairs, and more product for food tasting. Someone came by and asked me about doing a dinner party for their garden club, using the fresh and organic product I sell and some of the local wines I promote, too. This little market stall has turned out to be a good idea. Although I was not always convinced it would be.
The seed of the idea for our organic vegetable stand was laid when we walked by the tiny corner lot at the end of our street and saw it was for sale, 100% financing available. We pondered what commercial operation might go in there. We were both concerned it would be something that would not add to the value of our community. A gas station or a convenience store or a strip center that remains vacant for months, a brand new ghost town at the mouth of our subdivision. We began to talk about the things we’d rather see go in there. A cute boutique shop or a nice family market where we could stop and grab a few item on our way in, vs. going to Kroger. Our conversation developed and we thought how cool it would be to have a diverse little organic produce market. We have a produce market down the street, but it is the kind of store that stocks everyday vegetables, jams, shelled peas in ziplock bags, boiled peanuts… what I call “cracker food”. And it doesn’t cater to the diverse elements of our community.
We envisioned a small stall set on the blacktop with room for about five cars at a time. It would have little racks with the kind of produce you cannot find at CrakerMart, foods that appeal to our diverse neighborhood of Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and the smattering of others. Also everything organic and local, with a cooler for fresh cheeses and yogurt made from raw milk. That was the kind of place that we would like to have, communal and local and independent.
Of course, the idea of “why not do this ourselves?” crossed our minds. We talked and brainstormed and figured things out. We daydreamed and imagined ways we would make it work. She would keep her job and I would man the stand during the week. We’d work together on the weekends. She would make soaps and lotions in the evening to sell in a little basket. She would blend specialty teas. I would go to the market for the best organic produce, I’d make jams and preserves and spaghetti sauces and salsas. We wouldn’t make a fortune, but we’d get by in the summer when my industry is slow and we’d be serving the community.
That was a year ago.
In the months that followed the seed burrowed and took root in our combined brains. A used commercial shed became available to us for a song of a price. We bought it without even really knowing what we would do with it. Our friend bought two cows for milking, ensuring us a steady supply of milk and eggs if we wanted. The property remained vacant, and a new sign announced a new price, with a buy or lease option. My work and my interests brought me into contact with people who provided a range of organic and interesting products. I investigated the requirements for having a roadside vegetable stand and learned that they were not impossibly high. A friend gifted us a large chill chest. We chatted with neighbors and found they shared our vision for quality food choices that were convenient and conscious. Over time this was less of a dream and more of an idea, then more of a concept, then more of a plan.
One day we contacted the real estate agency about the property that was still unsold, over-grown and weeded. They quoted us a figure that was impossibly high and I figured this was the reason people dreamed things that never came to be; harsh reality set in. But then I thought about some advice I had offered a friend recently about what to do when there was nothing to lose. I told the agent that their price was ridiculous, explained what I wanted to do with the property and why, and counter-offered my “dream scenario price” with a take-it-or-leave it finality. A few days later they called me back to see if I was still interested, because there had been another price reduction. The price still wasn’t low enough, but instead of quibbling on money, I held firm to my original offer and explained again my mission. I was talking to the Universe at large as well as the real estate agent. It’s not the money, it’s the mission.
Weeks go by, fall slips into winter, winter becomes spring. One day the agent calls me and asks if I am interested in a special leasing contract on the property. The numbers work and we agree to meet on the property to talk about the details. When we get there I walk him around the lot and draw the vision for him, filling the lot with imaginary patrons and a homey storefront with a raised bed garden in the back and an area for cooking demonstrations and potluck parties. I was fleshing out my own vision as well. The Universe hears, and the Universe delivers. I walked away with a leasing contract for one year, with a monthly payment less than purchasing the lot outright would have cost.
After the “Oh shit!” factor had worn off, we realized we had serious work to do. Off days and late evenings were spend cleaning, weeding, trimming and cutting back a jungle of vegetation that had grown up around the lot. Endless trips to the state and county offices for the proper licensing. Renewed contact with vegetable vendors and farmers, cheese-making classes and supplies, canning and preserving, building a selection of natural soaps and lotions… it all became an exhausting, daunting, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying push to meet our opening date of June 21st. We nearly broke our own bank, but on Solstice Eve we had a “soft” opening after the sun went down. The lot and store front were lit with strings of bulbs, a fire pit burned on one side, ice cold lemonade and peach punch were on the other side. Summer vegetables packed the shelves and tables, baskets of soaps lined the counter. Our friends and invited guests filled the lot with conversation and laughter. We had a guy I know from a local winery donate his time and product for an improptu wine lesson and I gave a short cooking demo using fresh tomatoes. We had put up folding tables and they were piled with casserole dishes and potluck meals and everyone wandered and ate and made little purchases and we ran around hosting and trying to cover all the bases.
Through the course of the evening we attracted a lot of attention from our fellow neighbors as well as people driving by on the road. Many stopped and joined our party, making their own observations and purchases. Everyone left smiling, everyone left happy. We made $300 in four hours and I had no idea if that was good or bad but it didn’t matter. I’d taken a leave of absence from my day job last week and like it or not, we were at the cliff’s edge, so we’d better start flapping our wings and fly.
We opened the next day to waves and lulls. People often drove by, looking at our little stand, but not stopping. Some pulled in, wandered around, and left without buying anything. Everyone who came left with a pamplet listing not only upcoming events and classes, but a paragraph outlining our mission. Hey, who’d have though that all those years in church would pay off in some way? Keep pushing the mission! On the weekend we were slammed. We sold out of everything and the rows of chairs set up for my little pineapple demonstration were full. S. cut her day at the market short so she could run to the craft store and clean them out of soap-making supplies to replenish her stock. On Sunday I packed everything away, locked the converted shed and gate surrounding it and walked (yes, walked, not drove) up the stree to my house.
That evening I hosted a small and intimate dinner for those people who had been most instrumental in bringing this dream to a reality. My friends, the wine guy, the real estate agent were all there. We had a delicious meal from the very product I was selling to my customers and we toasted to the success of our dream market with glasses of champagne. We were celebrating as if we were at the end of a long journey rather than at the beginning. That celebratory energy is what I wanted to generate and manifest. That sense of “as if”.
All summer I have worked the market with more success than either of us imagined when we first talked about it. Sure, there have been shortages from vendors and frustrations and issues. But we have always referred to the mission. We have always put the mission first. That actually seems to heal hurt feelings and solve problems. We sell soaps and bath salts and lotions, tea blends, fair trade coffee imports, bushels of fresh vegetables and fruits, jars of jams and preserves, sauces, cheeses, yogurt, eggs, breads, cakes, pies, brownies, dressings… We have a small rack for a woman who makes pottery, a shelf for a man who blends his own spices (22 of them so far). Two or three times a week we have classes under the tent next to the garden which is finally bursting forth with ripe, homegrown vegetables. In the far corner, away from the hubub but still visible, sit four bee hive boxes. In another corner I’ve finished building a pen and roost for our first live chickens. We are going to teach and serve as much as we sell. Two weeks ago, after the market was closed down, I made a private dinner for an couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, with the cloth-draped and candlelit table set up along the raised bed gardens in a way that made them feel they were dining in the middle of a greenhouse. Later this fall I am going to actually have a greenhouse. Newspapers and local magazines have been out to photograph our stand and report on how in a tough economy two dinks on the outskirts of a major city build a successful specialty market. I would never call us a “specialty” market. Our interests are not specialized. Our mission is broad.
Mondays and Tuesdays the market is closed but I am still busy. There are food runs to make and product to produce and books to keep. I’ve hired a girl from the neighborhood fresh out of high school to work the register during the rest of the summer and fall. I can’t pay her much, but I can give her a lot. We haven’t decided if we will stay open on weekends during the winter or if I will go back to work in my industry, staying busy and paying the bills, and resume our market again in the late spring. With all our thought and concentration on getting started, we have not thought that far ahead. People in the neighborhood know us by face and name now. They look out for our tiny little concern, forming a kind of “marketwatch” after we were broken into one night. There have been no repeated robberies and I have to believe that sometimes things like that happen so that a greater good can be generated. Financially the market didn’t make us rich, but it paid for itself, our lease for the year, the renewal for next year, and all our bills with a bit of extra cash, provided the taxes aren’t worse than we projected. If we stopped right now, tonight, we’d be a success.
But the need hasn’t stopped so our mission hasn’t stopped. I can still walk briskly to work each day and imagine greater things, things that delight and inspire me. I’m sharing that inspiration with others around me, a few of whom have asked me to start a CSA-type food box that they can pick up every week. Occasionally someone comes by who has their own items to market or a farm. Sometimes people request me for special events that they are (gasp!) willing to pay handsomely for. My wine guy and I do regular classes now where he talks to guests about wine as they munch on food I’ve prepared. We do this in offices and condos and million-dollar homes. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.
It is cool and pleasant outside and we have closed for the evening. Everything is put away and locked tight and we tote a basket of assorted vegetables and a cooler of cheese as we walk up the street to our house. We take a very circuitous route so that we can walk throught the neighborhood and wave to our neighbors. I give away several tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchinis. We chat here and there with people. We go arm in arm up to our door. I shower and shave and make plans for the next day. I miss a call on my phone from the real estate agent. He leaves a message that says he has another small property about 4 miles away very much like the one I am currently leasing. He hasn’t had any offers on it in a year. Have I ever thought about expanding my operation?
I will call him back, but not tonight. It is Sunday night and I’m home with my wife and for a few hours, that’s all there will be. It’s Sunday night already? Jeez, time flies when you are having the time of your life.