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May 27, 2009

The Funkiest Place Ever

Byron Noble, an actor from Vancouver and (right) Skye Sweetman (who really is a sweet man), from Australia, now living on Salt Spring with his girlfriend and selling knitted hats at the market. They were hamming it up for my camera one Saturday.)

Here's a story I wrote for the Weekender last week about being a new vendor at The Saturday Market.

Before I moved to Salt Spring last October my only knowledge of the Saturday Market in the Park was as a tourist, on and off, for 20 years. The glorious arrays of artistic bounty mixing with the sun and the ocean breezes and the creative nirvana all around made me borderline delirious. And can I just say that after all these years it’s still “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.

So much so, in fact, that getting a spot as a new market day vendor is harder than scoring a ticket to the gold medal hockey match at the 2010 Olympics. As Mary and Joseph discovered, there ain’t no room at the inn. Success breeds popularity and on occasion a tad bit of territorial prima donna neuroticism. Where’s a Reality TV show producer when you need one?

Rob Pingle, the market’s new coordinator, flips a good one-liner to diffuse tension. He walks quickly, clutches the precious seniority list and a long measuring stick. Problem-solver. Therapist. Cop. Diplomat. Publicist. All very useful traits last Saturday when he turned away 15 day vendors on the May long weekend. Sorry! But, look at all that green grass murmur newbies. Right there. Inches away. Whispers start. “It’s the covenant” say the experienced. What? Is that like Opus Dei?

“Like a lot of things about the market, it’s not written down per se,” says Pingle. “From what I understand, the Province gifted the designated space and defined where and how the market can occur and for the same reasons it can’t run on Sundays, it can’t just expand onto the grass.”

“There’s a theory that demand [by new day vendors] happens in cycles,” he says. “This year could be one of those years.” He thinks that a weekly pre-registration system for all vendors would enable him to know, in advance, who was going to be there each Saturday. “A proactive approach to vendor approval requiring day vendors to register earlier in the year like Seasonal Vendors might make it easier as well. That way their products could be verified as truly meeting the make it, bake it, grow it philosophy and their residency status (minimum 6 months) could be verified as well.”

Rugged individualists started a version of the market, circa 1975, but its current philosophy - “Make it, Bake it, Grow it & Vendor Produced and Sold” – was born in 1992 when extreme tension a.k.a “the Market Wars” resulted in a community-wide referendum that set the foundation for the current guidelines.

Alvaro Sanchez, representative for the Jewellers Guild, has sold at the market for almost 20 years. He’d like vendors to “think more about what’s good for the market as opposed to what’s good for them.” In principal he’s against more regulations but knows that the market’s success has made them necessary.

In a haze of market culture ignorance, I knew nada of vendor culture. Rules? Politics? Personalities? Palu? Is that some sort of exotic paté?

I liken the experience to a beauty pageant. If you’re into maintaining the fantasy, don’t ever take a peek back stage.

Points are everything! The only way to eventually become a seasonal vendor is to accumulate points, one point for each time you’re assigned a spot. Pingle estimates that any new day vendor intent on scoring a seasonal vendor spot may be looking at seven to eight years. And by the way, seasonal vendor spaces are tied to people, not businesses, so seasonal vendors get first dibs on any seasonal spots that come available in a seniority pecking order that rivals the Federal government’s hiring processes.

If you’re used to being up at the crack of dawn (no partying Friday nights), can handle your car like a reverse Demolition Derby driver while unloading, don’t mind feeling like you’re in training to become a professional mover, and (I’ll speak for myself) can handle the crushing disappointment of making very little money, day vending is heaven. Be glad you’re not Tom Jahns. He drags what look like the equivalent of five old growth fir trees that he’s carved into Twig chairs hoping for a spot each week.

Once the farmers have arrived - first come first served - no later than 8:30 am sharp and the seasonals have set up, the ritualistic name calling begins - one by one - down the day vendor list. Newbies crowd closer and begin to follow Pingle like anxious baby chicks.

This is not for the weak willed. Commitment baby! If you can’t be there one Saturday because let’s say your wife is giving birth or you’re scheduled for sexual re-assignment surgery, you can (for a maximum of four times only) take a pass, pay $5 and retain your seniority.

Each time you get a spot (and Mercury is not in Retrograde) you get one point. You pay a $5 flat fee plus 1.25 per foot to a maximum of eight feet. Seasonals pay $150 for the season and $1.25 per foot. Some farmers are grandfathered at 10 feet (that often looks like 12).

But here’s the deal. None of this matters because if you’re thinking of dropping by with your wares, it’s too late. You would have had to sign up on the first day of the first market in April to get high enough on the seniority list of day vendors to guarantee – absolutely nothing actually - especially in the high season. But don’t let me dissuade you.

If the tense jockeying into position isn’t enough, newbies tend to get a little OCD about the ultimate booth; one that showcases products and takes up less space than an anorexic in a Greyhound bus toilet. Margo Milton has the right idea. She’s got a modified ladder. It’s perfect for her photos. Don’t block your neighbour’s walkway. Don’t change what you initially declared you were selling without consulting Mr. Pingle. Selling food? Where’s your current approval from the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

“Your neighbours are watching,” says Sanchez who says that it could take a few weeks, a month or two months but a jury process exists and if there are questions about whether you really did make it, bake it, or grow it, you can expect a visit. If the coordinator can’t handle the complaint directly there’s a dispute resolution process via the Market Advisory board.

But, lest this sound so heavy, newbie vendor Linda James (Flame on Glass Studio) lets out the real secret of the market’s success. “I get to go to this big party every Saturday, the other vendors are really nice, there’s jugglers, people on stilts with wings, and even people smoking dope at 8 am. It’s the funkiest place ever.”

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