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Dishing up cheer for 50 years at Farmers Market

Doris Perez has been working at the Original Farmers Market for half a century, selling dates, pies and nuts with an effervescent smile.

November 17, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld
  • With a smile, Doris Perez, 78, greets her customers at Magee's House of Nuts at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles in November. Perez has worked at the market for 50 years.
With a smile, Doris Perez, 78, greets her customers at Magee's House… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

So much in Los Angeles changes fast. Treasure the good things that don't.

"Hello, Doris!" goes the chorus of regulars at the Original Farmers Market, when they stop by to see Doris Perez, who has been there as long as they know.

Her first job was at the Desert Date Shop, with its saltwater taffy, plump medjools and deglet noors — though, truth be told, not many who visit remember her from way back then.

They do from Du-par's, where she worked pies for 38 years, selling thousands each Thanksgiving Day from the parking lot when the rest of the market was closed.

When Du-par's changed hands and shut its doors for an overhaul, Perez jumped ship to Magee's House of Nuts.

Since 2005, she's been dishing up macadamias and cashews and almonds at the stall with the giant peanut grinder.

Maybe you've seen her there, standing all of 4 foot 11 3/4 — short white hair, glasses, an Irish lilt in her ever-cheerful voice.

Maybe she's said, "Wouldn't you like to try some?" as you've gazed at the grinder's lush peanut butter, being endlessly stirred.

A few weeks ago, on Oct. 23, Perez marked her 50th anniversary at the market — though she isn't one to brag and she's kept it mostly under her hat.

On a recent Saturday morning, after flipping on the lights and tying a black apron over her crisp white shirt, the 78-year-old, who has 4 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, set to work arranging the jams, knickknacks and nut butters in precise stacks and V-patterns on almost every inch of countertop.

"Top of the morning!" said a kind-looking man in a khaki windbreaker just as she was finishing up.

"And the rest of the day to you!" she chimed back to Peter O'Malley.

The former Dodgers owner, old-fashioned and courtly, likes to stop in to see Perez as his father, Walter, did before him. (Walter was partial to Du-par's chicken pies, she says: "He used to buy them by the dozen.")

"We just came by to say hello. Can we buy you a cup of coffee?" O'Malley asked, his wife Annette by his side.

"She's the best. We love her. We truly love her," Peter O'Malley said, which led Annette to reminisce about the St. Patrick's Day when her husband was heading out to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick stag dinner. Perez said, "You're going to be alone tonight," and gave her a big bag of salted nuts for company.

It's the people like Perez, the O'Malleys said, who have kept them coming back to the market. Remember Agnes? And Joe, who liked to sneak the kids candy? And Charlie in the shop that is now Monsieur Marcel, who once found a bracelet of Annette's behind a freezer six months after she'd lost it?

"She's the only one we know now," Annette O'Malley said of Perez. But half a century? That was big news to them.

It even snuck up on Perez a little.

Who could have guessed it would happen this way? She had planned to be in America for a year. She'd arrived as Doris Leech in 1959 to be a nanny to two little ones: Byron and Francine, they were called. At night, she and other young women from back home — from Ireland and Scotland and Wales — would get together to stave off the loneliness at the Cart Inn on Hollywood Boulevard or Hody's Coffee Shop at Hollywood and Vine.

At Hody's, Perez met a Mexican-born cook named Jose Fries Perez, though everyone called him Joe.

It didn't last forever, but they were married in 1961. He got a job cooking at the market. A friend owned the date shop and when the opening came up, well ... Doris Perez had always loved being around people. She also had a little retail experience from Ireland, where as a teenager she'd worked for a grocery store, bicycling to take orders in customers' homes — including that of Eamon de Valera, when he was the Taoiseach, or Irish prime minister.

At the market, too, she's had her brushes with history.

She'd been there less than a month — and was still getting lost in the maze of the place — when she learned from weeping customers that John F. Kennedy had been shot.

"Everybody, men and women, I never saw people cry like that," she said.

She still can't quite believe that she had the bad luck not to be working when the Beatles stopped by on Oct. 5, 1964. ("Thank you for the Peanut Butter it was fab," reads a copy of the note — displayed on the counter — that all Fab Four signed for Magee's.)

Magee's peanut butter machine dates back to the early 20th century, says Phyllis Magee, whose mother-in-law, Blanche, opened the market's first restaurant in 1934. Hanging next to the machine is a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower watching it at work. Perez shook the former president's hand on that day in 1968.

Glenn Ford used to visit Perez at Du-par's before he got ill late in life, she said. One day his son stopped by and introduced himself. "And I said, 'Oh my God, tell him we miss him,'" Perez said. The son said he would have his father telephone.

"Half an hour later, he called and he said, 'Hi, dear,'" Perez said, still aglow in the memory.

All day long, people stop by to shoot the breeze. Perez asks after children and grandchildren and spouses. "Where've you been? I haven't seen you for awhile," she says. "You're on your own today. What did you do with your husband?"

With Perez around, Phyllis Magee teases, she might as well be invisible:

"I can be standing right here and they'll say, 'Where's Doris?' I'll say, 'She's not here today but maybe I can help you?'"

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