Eastern Market: Popular destination thrives as only survivor of citywide commerce system

The idea of Eastern Market, the District’s most famous flea market and farmers market, has been around for over 100 years as first part of a citywide market system. “The largest market was called Center Market, which was downtown until the National Archives was built on the lot,” said Tom Rall, Manager of the Flea Market at Eastern Market since 1984. “Today, Eastern Market is the only remaining operating market from the original market system still operating in D.C.”

Rall said that D.C. always had an outdoor farmers market, and in the mid-’70s a Saturday arts and crafts market was added by the Market V Gallery. The Sunday flea market began in 1983.

Eastern Market sometimes gets about 200 exhibitors on Saturdays and Sundays, but it usually depends on the weather, Rall said. “The numbers are nothing like that in February, but the flavor of our indoor market is thriving.”

Steve Adams is a vendor who has sold his specialty glazed nuts and pralines at Eastern Market for the past six years. Adams runs his booth “Sweet Nuthouse,” selling nuts that his wife made. “I’ve met people from all over the world,” he said. “It’s just a fun place to be, rain, snow or any weather.”

Jackson Collins, a painter, considers himself a rookie to Eastern Market. He’s been selling his paintings at the flea market for about a year. Originally from California, Collins said that he’s painted all of his life. His paintings run at about $75 each and he likes all of the creative types he’s met while working at Eastern Market. His paintings as of late are inspired by President Obama, as well as the blues and jazz era.

Alan Covert has been selling jewelry at the Market for seven years. Originally from Tidewater, Va., Covert’s jewelry runs from $15 to $200. In addition to selling his items at Eastern Market, Covert has a kiosk at the Columbia Mall in Columbia, Md.

“Probably the most interesting story about my time vending at Eastern Market was when I sold a coral necklace to the woman who played the mother on the Waltons,” he said. “I didn’t recognize her until someone else pointed it out — she was very friendly.”

Rall said that although he hasn’t done a head count of visitors to Eastern Market recently, before the April 2007 fire that damaged multiple vendor booths, it was averaging about 15,000 visitors per weekend and now is back up to the 12,000 range. “Two years ago, Eastern Market was voted in a Washington Post poll as the best place in D.C. to take out-of-town visitors,” Rall said.

Three particular visitors of the market last Saturday included Courtney and Jessica Klamar, two sisters from Columbus, Ohio and their friend Sarah Carney, a junior at the University of Maryland.

“We’ve visited a lot of vendors, and ate some crepes,” Courtney said. “They were lovely.”

When asked if they bought anything, the girls teased Carney that she couldn’t leave without picking up a piece of art, as she held up her purchase.

In addition to the Klamars and Carney, Eastern Market was bustling with families with babies, couples and many singles with their dogs sniffing curiously at every booth.

Janet Lee, who lives near Gallaudet University, enjoys Eastern Market’s fresh food, produce and the butcher shop in its indoor market. “Also, he and I go gaga over the bakery’s Tollhouse cookies,” she said, smiling at her boyfriend.

Jay Liddle, who was at the market with friends on Saturday, said he attends Eastern Market once every two to three months. Liddle, who’s lived in Crystal City for the past seven years, enjoys stopping for breakfast at the market’s indoor café. “After that, I usually window-shop or pick up some fresh produce — my favorite is the summertime here,” he said.

Eastern Market is working on getting some restaurant arrangements with area establishments, as well as hosting cooking classes at area schools, according to Rall. “Eastern Market really has helped revitalize the community in the last quarter century,” he said. “All Realtors say it’s a great amenity to have, and a great meeting place for the neighborhood.”

Restoration from the April 2007 fire should be complete by this summer, Rall said.

If he were to tell newcomers about Eastern Market, Rall would tell them it’s about the people and diversity. “We started the outdoor market after two to three years and I was advertising that we had dealers from five states,” he said. “By the time the South Hall opened on Sundays, we had exhibitors from five continents.”

For more information on Eastern Market, visit www.easternmarket.net.