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75 years of the Original Farmers Market

Time moves a little slower at the much-loved gathering spot at 3rd and Fairfax. For longtime merchants and old friends, it's a respite from a hurried world.

July 15, 2009|Mary MacVean

When his favorite breakfast spot at the Original Farmers Market switched from metal to plastic cutlery a few years ago, longtime regular David Freeman didn't.

Instead, the Los Angeles writer brought a spoon from home. Once he finishes his morning coffee, he returns the spoon to the market's tiny Coffee Corner to keep for him until his next visit.

As it turns 75 this week, the market remains a place where the wary can hold change at bay.

"Los Angeles is a very impersonal town. This is the opposite of that," explains Bob Tusquellas, who owns Bob's Coffee and Doughnuts, Tusquellas Seafoods and Tusquellas Fish and Oyster Bar.

Freeman echoes the thought: "I didn't realize I would someday value the simple act of knowing the person who makes my coffee."

At its beginning, a few farmers hawked produce from their trucks. Today, the market has grown into a collection of several dozen shops and restaurants at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue. Parking can be maddening. The rickety wood-and-metal chairs are not so comfortable, though plenty of people occupy them for hours at a time, day after day. Some of the shops are remarkably anachronistic, especially compared with the thoroughly modern Grove shopping center next door. Farmers Market merchants have operated for decades on month-to-month leases; some stalls post "cash only" signs.

An estimated 3 million people visit each year, drawn to a place that straddles stodgy and funky, hokey and hip.

Early mornings belong to the East Patio.

At 6 a.m., three hours before the Farmers Market officially opens (though Du-par's restaurant is open round the clock), the day has begun at Bob's, where a baker rolls out loaf-sized pillows of dough and cuts out dozens of circles, deftly popping out the hole before placing them on a rack to proof and then fry for raised, glazed -- the top seller.

Soon, Phil's Deli & Grill comes alive, with five workers behind the counter and six people ordering breakfast, including some in red T-shirts that pledge their love for Drew Carey - a ploy to get on "The Price Is Right" next door at CBS.

By 9, the tables fill up. At one sits a trio of women who started dropping by as young mothers, after dropping children off at nearby Hancock Park Elementary School.

"We used to discuss kids and then teens and now it's parents and grandchildren," says one of them, Katie Ragsdale.

"Each group believes it's their place," says David Hamlin, author of a new book, "Los Angeles's Original Farmers Market," written with Brett Arena, archivist for the A.F. Gilmore Co., the family firm that owns the market.

And, in fact, it is their place, at least for a little while.

"Do you know who we are? . . . That is the inventor of the Ponzi. . . . This man invented coffee. . . . We're not friends, we're outpatients."

So begins a conversation -- or perhaps a performance -- at what must be the funniest, and the most frequently quoted, table in the market. Asked how long the fluctuating group of six to 10 people has been meeting, one says 30 years. In a flash, another adds, "I got here Thursday."

At the table one recent Wednesday morning are Freeman, who included the market in his 2004 novel, "It's All True"; director Paul Mazursky and actor Jack Riley, who has been in dozens of films and TV shows (think Elliot Carlin on "The Bob Newhart Show" and Stu Pickles in "Rugrats").

They move quickly through the news of the day. They talk about movies and food, "and pray that we stay alive another day. Our medical reports are extensive," Mazursky says, listing a four-way bypass, strokes and trouble walking among their ailments.

Despite it all, "we are obsessive about coming here. We feel compelled to come here," he says.

By midday, many of the East Patio regulars have come and gone. Tourists and workers from the neighborhood are out for lunch. People roam from stand to stand reading menus for Italian, Mexican, Malaysian, deli, Middle Eastern, barbecue, sushi, Chinese and more. There's English toffee that "is its own food group," says Jimmy Shaw, owner of the popular Loteria Grill Mexican food stand. There's homemade horseradish and ice cream.

"On a hot day, when the temperature is just right and the smells are blowing in just the right direction, it's like I was 6 years old," says Stan Savage, the 36-year-old market manager and great-great-grandson of company founder A.F. Gilmore.

There are shops that seem out of step in an Abercrombie-dominated world. Treasures of the Pacific sells scarves and shells and wind chimes. Others sell stickers, a thousand kinds of hot sauce, souvenirs and toys (none of them electronic games). Shoppers can watch candy being made at Littlejohn's, or butchers or cake decorators at work. Teenagers on summer break roam between the market and the Grove.

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