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The Greening of the Market

Wooden shopping carts, chairs and tables made by workers on the premises give the complex at 3rd and Fairfax a touch that evokes another era.

March 21, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Amid the many quaint aspects of the charming if anachronistic Farmers Market, one stands out as a utilitarian throwback to a mellower age.

It is the green, slatted-wood carts that customers use to gather their produce, peanut butter, tri-tips and Cabernet Sauvignon sorbet -- the mainstays and treats that make the 69-year-old market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue an institution.

Every year, customers negotiating the market's crowded aisles go through about 800 of the vertical pine baskets. Each is replaced by a spanking new one -- in glossy Farmers Market green -- produced right there at the market, in a wood shop that generally goes unseen by anyone but market insiders.

There, in a new shed made to look old, tucked behind the original adobe that houses the headquarters of the market's owners, four extremely handy men build the carts, repair the market's wood-seated folding chairs and assemble the round, laminate-topped tables. They also are on call to snake out sewer pipes, keep the lights from flickering and maintain the wooden stalls. Every once in a while, they can be found chasing chickens and roosters back onto the adobe grounds.

Lately, they've been busily crafting stylish wooden chairs and tables for a plaza area just outside the market.

"They work hard," said Stan Savage Jr., director of marketing and tourism for A.F. Gilmore Co., which built and owns the market. "These guys are the reason the market works."

"These guys" are Sergio Alvarez, Alfredo Murguia Alcaraz, Robert Lopez and Francisco Alvarez (no relation to Sergio). All are full-time Gilmore employees. Sergio Alvarez has had the longest tour of carpentry duty and heads the crew.

He was doing maintenance work at apartment buildings 19 years ago when he heard that the market's wood shop was hiring. He has been a fixture ever since.

"Everything I know now I learned right here," he said.

One recent afternoon, Lopez, dressed in a white painter's jumpsuit and mask, was ensconced in the wood shop's paint booth. Using a high-powered sprayer, he quickly coated dozens of freshly assembled carts with primer, a color called Irish green.

Once primed, the carts are painted with the custom Farmers Market green, a high-gloss shade that Dunn-Edwards Corp., a Los Angeles paint company, first made for the Gilmore company in 1994.

Think of a John Deere tractor green, but lighter and brighter, with a fair amount of yellow. The color is a departure from the pastel shades used in years past, as are the wooden carts from those of wicker that populated the market in its earliest days. Three of the pastel carts, a different species from the standard clanking metal supermarket cart, hang in the wood shop. Only photos of the wicker version survive, along with a replica in the Farmers Market office.

The pine carts, which move on a pair of small, black wheels, take a beating. Some lose their wheels, some splinter from wear. At Thanksgiving time, many of them tip over from the weight of the turkeys that shoppers load into them. Many others simply go missing, despite the prominent stickers that Alcaraz affixes to them: Property of Farmers Market. For Groceries Only. No Children.

They are, after all, handy objects. Even Savage, 30, a fifth-generation member of the Gilmore family who was given one as a boy and still uses it, acknowledges that "they make great laundry hampers."

Years ago, a man called the Gilmore offices to report that he had found 42 of the carts in the garage of his mother, who had recently died. An elderly New Mexico man stopped by one day to pay for the cart his son had once lifted on a visit. Gilmore officials declined the offer.

The prospect that customers might be willing to pay for something produced at the wood shop -- rather than simply walk off with it -- suddenly has the market pondering whether to go into the retail furniture business.

Customers have asked about buying the pine chairs that Santa Monica architect Hank Koning designed for the plaza outside the new high-tone retail shops that Gilmore built between the market and the Grove shopping center. Koning and Julie Eizenberg, his wife, designed those buildings, and Gilmore officials asked Koning to put his talents to work on some furniture that would have a bit more flair than the market tables and chairs.

"We experimented with different angles and sizes," Koning said. "This seemed to be the most comfortable for a wide range of folks." He ended up with what he calls a farmhouse version of an Adirondack chair, with the seat slanting slightly downward toward the back, and a small table that can also serve as an ottoman.

"I personally think they're pretty comfortable," said Ashley Jahn, who was lingering in one of the chairs one sunny afternoon. "I like the aesthetics of them even more." Whether the market will swing a marketing deal with Koning and Eizenberg remains to be seen. But Eizenberg has hopes. "There's something warm and fuzzy about them," she said of the chairs and tables, "like old jeans."

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