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photo:John Whipple

To Market, to Market
By Miriam Axel-Lute

The Troy Winter Farmer’s Market turns a marginal mall space into an old-world social center


Alan McClintock has not come to the farmer’s market on this Saturday planning to make a morning of it. The Troy resident just hasn’t had breakfast yet, and has ducked in to pick up some sort of baked good from one of the 50-odd vendors lined shoulder-to-shoulder around the tiled atrium at Third and Broadway.

But the sounds of local flamenco guitarist Maria Zemantauski, who is playing with her full band in one of the side hallways, have drawn McClintock in. And as he stands by the music, one by one, people he knows wander by, pausing to give him a hug and say hi, until one who has stopped to chat teases, “Women are just lining up to give you hugs!” (As if on cue, a male friend stops by a minute later. “This is the nicest gathering in the whole world nowadays!” he enthuses, completely unprompted, before rushing off “to catch up with my wife.”)

McClintock, a carpenter with long white hair, grins and says quietly that this is turning out pretty well: “I hadn’t had a hug all week.” By some introverts’ standards, McClintock, an active contra dancer and member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op, is actually something of a social butterfly, but if you follow most visitors to the market around for 10 minutes or so, you will likely see them run into someone they know.

“What are you doing here?” “Just hanging out listening to Maria.” Little knots of people are gathered in every aisle. Some groups are trading rutabaga recipes. Others are discussing the evening’s plans or the latest gallery opening. South Troy resident Pam Bentien has just passed off tickets to an event she couldn’t attend to a friend whom she’d arrange to meet here. It was a logical place to meet up, she notes. “This is the place to be.”

A farmer’s market in the dead of winter in upstate New York may not immediately seem like it would be the most happening place. Most such markets close in October and don’t start up again until May or June. But at Troy’s, though the profusion of fresh vegetables has diminished to piles of roots and some coveted and highly expensive greenhouse spinach, the offerings—apples, eggs, cheese, meat, wine, jam, baked goods, anything wool—are easily still diverse enough to attract a crowd. Musicians, community groups, and prepared-food vendors round out the nonprofit, producers-only market, which has been operating since 2002 (the summer market started in 2000).

The market transforms the Uncle Sam Atrium Building, which was built in 1979 as an indoor mall. A mall wasn’t what Troy needed, it seems, and much of the retail space in the building eventually was filled in with government offices. Much of the time it’s a fairly desolate place. But from 10 AM to 2 PM on Saturdays in the winter, the common space of the atrium blossoms.

There are regulars who do as much of their shopping as they can here, reveling in the chance to get goods that are locally and sustainably produced and to meet the people who make them. But there are also those who are happy to grab a half-gallon of cider one week or a wheel of cheese the next, but mostly come for the socializing.

Augi Vaicus and Judy Meyer moved to Troy a few years ago from Hudson. In Hudson, says Meyer, you might run into someone for a few seconds on the street, but if you wanted to chat more you had to make the “commitment” of settling into a restaurant. Now they look forward to coming to the market nearly every week to “get all the good rumors firsthand,” and hang out with their friends.

In the summer they meet at picnic benches. In the winter they follow a pattern started by Troy native Carl Erickson two years ago of bringing chairs down from an upstairs café to a wide landing on the center stairway that commands a broad view of the general bustle. Erickson, who has spent time in small-town Latin America, says this market functions for him like the traditional markets there, becoming the social hub of the week.

Other groups also have settled in for the long haul, one by the children’s art table, several strung along the low wall surrounding the dry pool under the stairs. Seating is at a premium, so one group of college students enjoying a leisurely lunch has turned inward, taking seats on the painted-blue fountain bottom.

This morning the group on the landing has been trading thoughts on the recent city property auction. Vaicus was happy to see more contractors than absentee landlords present, but others were worried about the fate of specific buildings next door to their homes.

New friendships have been forged on this landing that have little to do with the finer points of the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef that are being earnestly discussed below. The people at the market aren’t “segmented into work, academic studies. . . . There’s folks from all walks of life,” says Vaicus. He indicates another landing regular, Paul Grattan, a Waterford resident who says he was born in 1909 and has been coming to the market since it opened. “We never knew this guy before we ran into him here.”

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