The heart of the market

pike place market

Some months ago, my former colleague Mike Sula captured the attention of answer-man Cecil Adams with an admiring account of the bounty to to be found at Cleveland’s West Side Market and a plaintive query. “Even in this economy,” he wrote, “if a midsize rust-belt city can support a place like that, there’s no reason Chicago can’t. I’ve said it before: Chicago can never seriously consider itself a world-class food city until it builds a market like this. Why can’t we have a public market like Cleveland’s?”

Now, with the impending debut of the Metra Market, the question’s still got traction. Last month Art Shel Jackson [sheesh — how did I do that?] published this thoughtful analysis on his blog, and over at the Local Beet Rob Gardner’s pulled together a useful roundup of  links to recent writings on the subject. All this local press (understandably) holds up markets in midwestern Milwaukee, Cleveland, Kansas City, and  even Toronto as points of comparison. But back in February Cecil also mentioned the market forever wrapped tight around my heart: Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Smack in the middle of downtown Seattle at the foot of Pike Street, overlooking Elliott Bay, the market — whose name is frequently mangled by out-of-towners as “Pike’s Place” — celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007. I spent a lot of time there in the 1980s, loitering at the newsstand that stocked exotic magazines like Harper’s and Interview, poking around in the anarchist bookstore, and smoking clove cigarettes in Victor Steinbrueck Park — and it hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening 20 years. It can be frustratingly clogged with tourists, especially on a nice weekend, but it’s also still full of weird little shops selling off-brand Asian tchochkes, dusty magic tricks, vintage postcards, Birkenstocks, bongs … you name it. I shot the following photos in late September, when I was home visiting my family for my father’s 70th birthday.

more fish

Fishmongers clad in chest waders and sturdy aprons take the place of honor at the Pike Street entrance. I didn’t get a photo of the famous flying fishes at Pike Place Fish (a practice that has come in for some heat of late) but this guy here, at a less flashy rival stall, is an appropriate cute-guy stand-in for the fish dude my friend K unsuccessfully wooed one summer in the late 80s.


If I have the timeline correct, she and I were living together in the U-District at the time. We ate a lot of fish that year.


After the fish zone come rows of stalls stocked to the gills (sorry!) with fresh produce.


Followed by a stretch of flower stalls run by Hmong farmers, who grow a blinding array of blooms west of the city in the Snoqualmie Valley. In late September it was apparently zinnia season.

At the north end of the market the trade shifts from fruits and flowers to handicrafts. Here, vintage Northwest hippies hawk silver jewelry and batik flags across from Native American artists selling woodwork and leather goods. I didn’t get a picture of this scene, but it’s up here in the northern zone that the market becomes less clogged with tourists and more the market I remember from my childhood. Beyond the retail corridors the market is also home to about 500 low-income residents, who live in property managed by the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. I’m no authority, but I’d hazard that this residential population gives the market a certain stability. Though Seattle has changed radically since I was a kid — thanks to the double whammy of the grunge and booms — I can’t imagine the market will never get truly slick as long as there are still knots of crusty punks panhandling and still clutches of craggy-faced men, too loaded to be truly menacing, hanging out by the totem pole in the park. I find this comforting.

original 'bucks

The market itself is also a bit of a museum of Seattle’s commercial history. Above, for example, is the sign outside the Original Starbucks — once upon a time the only place in town for aspirational yuppies to buy an espresso maker and a pound of dark-roast beans.

original slt

And just up the hill a bit is the original Sur La Table, which is still crammed to the ceiling with pots, pans, gadgets, linens, and Le Creuset cookware in just about any imaginable shape and color.


But, again, the heart of the market — for me — can be found in the dusty little places I’ve been hitting for years. Tenzing Momo, in a little atrium off the south market’s south wing, is an “herbal apothecary” stocked with everything from acacia flower to yohimbe bark. The smell of nag champa is sort of overwhelming, but if you can get past that you can get lost in the array of tarot decks and essential oils in every scent known to man and animal. (My current olfactory indulgence is a homemade blend of “white tea” and civet — which I’m sure will horrify my more perfume-savvy friends.)


More memories: For one long summer in 1987 I worked the breakfast shift at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I was living in a grotty little north-end apartment with too many people, and if I wasn’t quite the only one who had a job, I was definitely the only one getting up at 6 in the morning. I’d get off the bus at the market, where at that hour the only signs of life came from a few bakeries and delivery trucks, and stop in here for a pint of of carrot-apple-ginger juice. Then I’d drink my juice and walk the dozen blocks down First Avenue to work, where the early morning guy would make me a fine espresso. At the end of the summer, I slept with him.


Sometimes on my way home from working and flirting with the morning guy I’d stop here for a snack — delicious steamed buns stuffed with just a spoonful of meat (or veggies, or … mayonnaise). To this day, though, I remain scared of the “ham and corn” bao.

suicide shoes

And then there’s this little shop — tucked into a corner of the Sanitary Market mall. The name may tout its collection of woks and bowls, but throughout high school this was the go-to spot for footwear. My friends and I all had extensive collections of their rubber-soled cotton espadrilles, which came in a rainbow of colors and sold for something like $12 a pair. If you were daring you could also pick up a pair of what we came to term “suicide shoes” — stretchy vinyl slippers with pointy toes, some rhinestone ornamentation, and the slipperiest soles ever created. They were predictably lethal when worn by a crew of drunk 16-year-old girls.

It’s these odd little outfits — and the dubious fish and chip stands, the head shop in the basement, the multiple vintage/rocker clothing stores, and the smell of fresh fish and diesel early in the morning — that I miss. I hate to get all nostalgic about “authenticity,” but with a CVS as its anchor I have a hard time imagining there’s this room for this kind of weirdness in the plans for Metra Market.

EDITED TO ADD: I just found this nice, comprehensive essay on the market’s history. I now really want to change the title of this post to “an honest place in a phony time.”