New Castle Farmers Market has been a melting pot of commerce for 63 years
By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times
It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and already the parking lot is teeming with cars. The diehards – the dealers, wheelers and pickers – arrived shortly after the outdoor flea-market vendors set up at 6 a.m. Inside, the New Castle Farmers Market in New Castle is bustling with activity.
Consider the simultaneous opportunities: enjoy hot coffee, grits and eggs while shoes are re-heeled at Fast Feet; follow it with a trim and shave at the Barber Shop; then get a free flu shot. Peruse the aisles at New Castle Produce, choose fresh seafood from Alex’s Seafood Restaurant and Clam Bar, and you’ve got dinner needs met all before noon.
Colorful, aromatic, and most certainly diverse, the marketplace is not just a shopping destination, but a shopping experience. Opened in 1954, it has survived two fires, the shopping mall phenomenon of the 1970s, and the more recent economic downturn. Today, the farmers market is a microcosm of the region’s culturally diverse population: Mexican pottery is sold doors away from Asian-owned enterprises; while fresh-from-the-oven baked goods in the Amish section whet the appetites of an equally diverse stream of customers.
“All of these things make it work. This cultural history – to be a part of something like that – is humbling. It’s bigger than you,” said Manager Greg Beecher.
Beecher, aka “the market man,” has managed the farmers market since 2008. He is the second manager under the market’s current ownership. The 17-acre market is part of a 65-acre parcel owned by 326
Associates, L.P., a Stat Organization Co. Beecher came onboard during a post-fire renovation, one that also expanded the Amish section. The sprawling structure is now over 100,000 square feet and includes 80 vendors. Many of these entrepreneurs draw their bread and butter from the three-day opportunity. The market operates all year, but is closed Monday through Thursday.
With just five employees, Beecher keeps busy putting out proverbial fires. Any given weekend finds Beecher dealing with every possible situation.
“There are business deals down there of every angle,” he said. “Something’s always coming up – with the bathroom or the ATM. Or it’s a customer complaint. There’s a power outage somewhere, or the AC is out. [I have] people making rent payments. [Outside], there may be a fender bender in the parking lot, or a fight over a parking space, or someone’s blocking the roadway. There are lost kids. People can’t recall where they parked their car.”
In contrast to the established storefronts, the seasonal flea market, open for two days over the weekend, is more random in nature. Buy a bicycle or a kitchen sink and haggle a bit over cost if you’d like.
“It’s its own living, breathing, moving organism,” Beecher said of the more transient open-air market.
Still, like the attitude that transcends throughout the rest of the marketplace, regular vendors are thought of as family. Beecher recalled the passing of William Presley, a flea-market vendor who died two years ago. The coveted commercial space was left vacant for the next weekend, allowing it to collect flowers left in memory of its former tenant. More recently, the passing of flea-market vendor and former Delaware State Trooper David Voss was remembered.
Long-timers outside and in share a genuine history that speaks to the value of relationships. Mable Burnett began working at Touch of Glamour hair salon when she was just 16. Now middle-aged, she owns the shop. She met her husband, a former vendor, at the New Castle Farmers Market.
Customers express it too. On this busy Saturday, and on separate occasions, two customers greeted Sidney Smith as if he were their long-lost cousin. Smith is the second generation to run Alex’s Seafood Restaurant and Clam Bar, but is no longer a regular presence. Today, his son Jason works behind the counter. Smith’s father, Alex, began the family enterprise with Alex’s Barbecue – the separate eatery still exists in the farmers market. The barbecue business is the only original storefront in the marketplace.
“Back [in my father’s time], the art of the huckster, the deal-making was much more relevant. “˜Come over here, try this”¦’ and the next thing you’d know they (the customer) would be buying a bag of food,” he said.
Alex’s Seafood and Alex’s Barbecue are among some two-dozen vendors who have enjoyed a steady livelihood at the farmers market for 20 years or more. And they’re just one of several that have experienced societal change. The Barber Shop, under the ownership of John Rogers, is now open legally on Sundays. But back in 1963, the courts saw things differently. Rogers’ father, Carl, was found guilty of operating a barbershop in Delaware on the Sabbath Day. Ironically, Delaware didn’t have Blue Laws for other establishments.
Stoltzfus Meats was also among the earlier ventures. The acceptance from the Amish community of engaging in commercial enterprises has become commonplace; today, Stoltzfus operates five food-related businesses in the farmers market along with several other Amish vendors. The Amish section is closed on Sundays.
As much as the farmers market is a place of commerce, Beecher and his predecessors understand the value in giving back. Earlier relationships with both the Delaware Department of Health and Christiana Care Health System have resulted in free health-care opportunities ranging from blood pressure checks to flu shots. A community stage, live music, face painting, and magic shows draw young and old alike. The events calendar has continued to grow under Beecher’s management. Girl Scouts sell cookies, football and cheerleading groups promote fundraisers, and Korean War veterans hand out fliers.
“I think it’s a place for family and friends to meet. It’s a social experience “¦ We have regulars – we see them every weekend,” Beecher said, adding, “There are a lot of really great people here. The merchants are the owners.
You really get that special interaction that you don’t get at a big box store.”