Corners of the Market

Don Schneider is a world-renowned glassblower during the week, but on Saturday he is the Mushroom Man, known for selling all manner of fungi at Eastern Market.

"Are these the ones that taste like butter?" a customer asks.

"You’re thinking of chanterelles. I don’t have those today."

Schneider, who has been selling at Eastern Market for 30 years, points towards the service drive. "My great-grandmother, when she came from Russia, had a stall over there."

Schneider recalls his first trip to the Fort Street Produce Terminal to buy mushrooms, "One of the wholesalers said: ‘Who are you, kid?’ I said I was Morris Lux’s grandson. He told the salesman, ‘Give him the same price you give Kroger.’ I never had any trouble after that."

But running a produce stall at the longtime Detroit institution – even now that it’s busier than ever – isn’t an easy way to pay the bills, Schneider says. Many dealers feel an economic pinch, squeezed between the wholesalers and the market management on one hand, and the bargain-hunting public on the other. In an era of superconvenience supermarkets, independent produce sellers are an old-fashioned oddity.

"My red line is almost $4,000 a year," Schneider says, referring to the yearly rental for his stall. "That’s a lot for a one-day-a-week business."

And it’s not an easy business, either. At the other end of the market, Ron Burns sells eggs from his family’s poultry farm in Millington, which 200,000 chickens call home, at least for a brief period. The family packs its truck and heads to Detroit at 2 a.m. each Saturday morning. They have breakfast at the market and begin selling at 6 a.m.

"After 10 hours, you’re about dead. Then we have an hour-and-a-half drive to get home," Burns says. "We’re crunching the numbers now to see if it’s worth it."

For the Saturday retail market, stall rental is $1,500 for six months. In addition, each time dealers open before 10 a.m., they pay a $26 surcharge. Some dealers consider the price tag steep. Others note that it is getting harder to make a profit.

Every day at 4 a.m., Olivia Baldwin walks from one end of the market to the other. The sheds are lit as bright as daytime, and the market is bustling with hi-lo’s moving pallets of fruit and vegetables. Baldwin has been the "Market Master" for 20 years, and she loves her job. "I got the job in the ’70s because of affirmative action, and I’ve been doing it ever since."

Along with two assistants, she collects rents and enforces the market’s regulations for the city of Detroit, which owns and operates the market.

The market has 350 stalls, each 7-1/2 feet wide, in five sheds. Six days a week, from 4 to 10 a.m., it is a wholesale farmers’ market. On Saturday mornings, when the public shops, the stalls are taken over at 10 a.m. by retail dealers who do not necessarily grow what they sell.

You can tell the vendors’ status by the licenses they display on their booth. Farmers, who come from Michigan, Ohio and Canada, display red metal signs, while dealers have orange ones. Dealers who are just renting the space for the day have green signs.

Baldwin makes sure that only bona fide growers are in the stalls on weekdays – sometimes by checking what they’re offering for sale. "If they’re selling sweet potatoes, we know they didn’t grow them," Baldwin says, "because no sweet potatoes are grown (commercially) in Michigan."

She turns away people who sell pies and jam, but on a recent Saturday she struggled to find space for a man who raised tomatoes hydroponically (grown in a nutrient fluid instead of soil).

"All the markets – Vic’s, Randazzo’s, Westborn – are here to buy during the week," says Baldwin. "When I came in this morning, I saw English Gardens had a semi. They get their bedding plants here, then they turn around and sell them to you."

Eastern Market is unique among farmers’ markets, Baldwin says. "Whenever I go visiting, I make it my business to find the farmers’ market. When I tell them that our market operates all year long, they can’t believe it."

Year-round, there’s something to sell. "We start with Easter lilies, then we go into bedding plants, then vegetables. We have pumpkins up to Christmas, then poinsettias and Christmas trees. It’s quiet in January and February, but I still have apples, cider, onions and potatoes."

Over the years, however, the market has changed. Ron Burns, the poultry farmer, notes "There are more flowers, fewer farmers. It’s a different market than it used to be … people’s eating habits have changed. They don’t cook, and they don’t bake any more."

With restraint, Burns adds, "By the end of the day, it can get pretty trying. Everyone’s looking for a bargain. There are no bargains in eggs. It’s a nickel-and-dime business."

But for those who have kept their businesses going for generations, it’s also a lifestyle. Sporting a sweatshirt that reads "University of Eastern Market," Jerry Robbins hangs two old photographs on a post that marks one end of his space. The photos show the market in the 1920s, filled with Model Ts.

"This was my grandfather’s stall," he says pointing to one of the photographs. "My great-grandfather sold fish. He went to Canada with a horse and wagon to get the fish."

Saturdays, Robbins sells garlic, hot peppers, mushrooms and snow peas. He always has a moment to tell a customer how to store mushrooms: "Don’t wash them, just brush them off, they’ll keep for a week in a paper bag in the refrigerator," he says as he weighs out a pound.

His daughter, Annie, sells with him. "She’s the fifth generation down here."

When Robbins retires, Annie will take over. "With my son," she adds. "He’s 14 years old, 6-foot-1. He’s playing baseball today."

Janet LaPoint has been working at the market since she was 5 years old – "The first thing my father taught me was how to make change," she says.

"It’s the bargaining that gets me mad," she adds. "Especially the people who come once a year to buy flowers. We call them amateur shoppers. They’re the rudest. They want to be waited on right now."

A young woman helps LaPoint set up. "This is Tammie, my future daughter-in-law. One day this will be hers."

When asked if it is something she wants, Tammie pushes back her red hair and says, "Not really."

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