SEATTLE — It is 6:30 a.m. and raining cats and dogs as an 80-year tradition takes place.
Nearly 100 farmers are crowded together in a corner of the Pike Place Market getting their assigned stalls for the day.
Millie Padua, the market master, calls out the names of the farmers in order of seniority. They call back the number of the stall they prefer for selling their wares this dark, dreary December day.
At 9 a.m. the same procedure is repeated. Only this time, instead of farmers, the crowd is made up of artists and crafts people.
There are 225 stalls at the market. The farmers get first choice, and each one has eight feet of space. What stalls are left go to the artists and crafts people. Their stalls are four feet wide.
Pike Place Market on the Seattle waterfront is one of the oldest markets in America.
It was founded Aug. 17, 1907, by the city government to break control of profiteering wholesalers charging high prices to consumers.
'Meet the Producer'
The city sponsored an open-air public market inviting farmers to bring their produce to the city center and sell directly to the public. In recent years, artists and crafts people have also been part of the market.
"Meet the Producer" was the motto of the market then and continues to this day. A huge "Meet the Producer" sign is on top of the market, above the Farmers Market sign and next to the big clock.
Only producers--the grower or artisan--is entitled to a stall. No regional or national chain stores are allowed or manufacturers' representatives of artwork and craft items.
In addition to the 225 stalls, there are farmers, fishmongers, butchers and bakers with larger permanent locations in the market. They are called the "High Stallers."
"Jumbo crabs. We got the crabs. Beautiful crabs. Cheapest place in town for crabs," shouts Cookie Cohen, 70, who has worked at the market since he was 10.
Cohen works for Pure Food Fish, founded in 1911 by his late father's partner, Jack Amon, whose son, Sol Amon, 58, now owns the big fish stand. Amon is a "high staller." There are four fishmongers at the market.
"This is a people's market, a market for the people of Seattle. The people in Seattle are very fortunate to be endowed with a multitude of seafood and have easy access to it. Just look at all this fish," Sol Amon said, waving his arms as he stood in the center of counter after counter of bountiful seafood.
Luzia Forster, 45, a Seattle-area resident since she emigrated from Switzerland to America 21 years ago, is a "low staller." Every day she comes to the market and hangs a sign over her stall: Flowers By Lucy. She has been selling flowers at the Pike Place Market 13 years.
All through December, Forster has been selling Christmas wreaths; the small ones cost $10.95, the larger ones $17.95.
"My husband makes the wreaths from pine needles, holly and cedar green growing on our property," Forster explained. "The rest of the year I sell flowers from a 'low stall' here at the market. My husband grows the flowers. I sell them."
In order to get on the market roll and rent a stall, one is required to show up at least two days a week. Some are here just two days, others come six and seven days. The rent is $11 on Saturdays and Sundays, $7 on weekdays.
A Long Waiting List
There are 100 farmers and 250 artists and crafts people currently on the Pike Place Market roll with more than 300 artists and crafts people on a waiting list.
"Pike Place Market is the hottest selling spot in Seattle," insisted Jennifer Cameron, 43, a dough artist who has been at the market 12 years. In December, she sells her creations, dough Christmas ornaments, along with her year-round dough kitchen magnets.
"On a busy Saturday 10,000 to 20,000 people pass by my stall. You can never get that kind of traffic volume in a store," noted Cameron, who said her worst day ever was $1.50 in sales and her best day about $1,000.
She said a Pike Place Market "low staller" can never predict what will happen. "Sometimes I sit here selling nothing, and people around me are having a fabulous day or I'm doing great and they are going belly-up. The market is my life. I love it."
Geraldine Allen, 54, is a Salish Indian who has been selling her bead work at the market nine years. "We never get the same stall. It all depends on how many farmers show up and how many craftsmen with more seniority than I have are here for the morning roll call. Then you select the hottest spot available."
Many artists and craftsmen with low seniority often show up for the roll call and do not get a stall. They go home and go back another day.
Deanna Booth, 47, drives up from her small farm at Castlerock, 125 miles away, every Thursday. "I stay at my sister's house in Seattle and make the market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Then I go home," she explained.