Meb Byrne

A Day At The Eastern Market

In dc, market, treasure trove on June 18, 2009 at 6:56 am

Union Square Market it ain’t, but DC’s Eastern Market is an NYC-infused treasure trove of finds, if you can persevere through the tourist kitsch.

Eastern Market has been in constant operation since 1873, under green roof structures to keep the elements away. The market has grown over the years, and now spills over into stretches of roofless sidewalk and two nearby parking lots. The original main attraction, the farmers’ market, is now relegated to a few stands of pungent fruit, having given way to stands upon stands of the same basic, tacky items that you can find at any street fair on the eastern seaboard. Skip the first block or two of the market, so you can get to the good stuff.

Save your appetite: as in any good farmers’ market, many of the food vendors offer free samples. The best produce stall showcases slices of three types of peach (the white peaches are the most ripe right now) and delectable slices of tomato (no, seriously, you want to try these.) One table offers free chips to sample their inventive hummus and salsa concoctions. If you’re in the mood for heartier fare, seek out the crepe stand, the popcorn vendor and the sorbet stand in the nearby vacant lots.

The culinary standout is Sweet Nuthouse, run by a woman named Heidi, who is quick to describe the sugar-coating process she uses to make her nuts (without butter or oil!) Choose between praline coated walnuts, with a super-sweet, maple-sugary taste, and cinnamon almond crunch, for a crunchier snack. The tag line of the stall is “One Nut Leads To Another,” and Heidi isn’t kidding. These things are addictive.

Living green is the latest trend, and almost everyone at the Eastern Market seems to have caught onto it. The vendors recycle everything: commemorative stamps are made into necklace pendants; classic African statues of giraffes and ostriches are woven from shredded soda cans; famous artwork like Van Gogh’s Starry Night is redone to include the Capitol Building in the background. The best of the recyclers is Larry Gallo, the exquisitely inventive proprietor of Stio Design. Mr. Gallo creates handcrafted jewelry from ancient and modern coins, as well as earrings from typewriter keys and cigar labels. Give yourself time to peruse his extensive selection.

Very close to Mr. Gallo’s stand is Archelaus (ar-ke-LAY-us), a wonderfully absurd printer of greeting cards, note cards and postcards. Archelaus is also a recycler, printing all cards on recycled, acid-free paper, but I find the stand so extraordinary as to put it in a category of its own. The stand offers free bookmarks as an incentive to peruse the multi-purpose cards. I will be purchasing all of my greeting cards from Archelaus from now on.

A number of art vendors sell their work on a street running parallel to the original Market. The standout is Quest Skinner, an up-and-coming DC artist who creates one-of-a-kind paintings on wooden box forms. Her art is vibrant, featuring bright colors, glitter, found objects, and inspirational themes. Skinner is a gracious hostess, delivering up better customer service than I’ve seen in most stores. Her paintings are reasonably priced, and she is willing to work with you if you have your heart set on a piece. I purchased a small painting of the ocean (coated in glitter, of course) and I’m sure I’ll be back again.

The huge vacant lot to the right of the original Eastern Market stalls is billed as a flea market, and it’s got some great finds. Among the best:

  • Old stereoviews, to be viewed through a stereoscope, the predecessor of modern 3-D imaging. The double imaged photographic prints are roughly organized by location, in boxes upon dusty boxes. I found two stereoviews from shoe factories in Syracuse at the turn of the 20th century, and some great shots of a classic New York City.
  • Vintage posters and prints, ranging from war bonds posters to classic Vogue covers to $10 prints of advertisements for films like “Blood Lust of the Voodoo Queens.” Had I the money, I would paper my walls with 1940s Gourmet magazine covers. Chat with the tent owner: he’s been in the same spot at the very back of the lot since 1968.
  • Giant handmade raffia hats from Madagascar, bell-shaped to make Audrey Hepburn proud.
  • Handmade pottery, designed for very specific purposes: bowls are advertised simply as “chowder bowls” or, my favorite, “banana split bowls.” The pottery is sturdy and attractive; the proprietor, Paul Gruner, is charming and helpful.

Finally, be sure to stop by the Button Lady, still selling her crazy assortment of buttons from a large metal tub at $5 a scoop.

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