Cincinnati’s Findlay Market resembled normal during the pandemic.
It’s Spring of 2021. Standing in the biergarten of Findlay Market, one of the country’s oldest operating public markets, my eyes fall on the square sail cloths strung from poles. Right now, they act as masks, hindering the longed-for sunshine. There are other masks too. On the faces of customers and vendors to protect from the spread of the coronavirus.
On the whole, interactions appear normal. I feel normal, safely shopping at the market whose reputation was that of Cincinnati’s community gathering place.
For a while in 2020, we all felt this same way.
Citizens in the U.S. naively presumed the coronavirus wouldn’t touch our borders. Residents of in Cincinnati, isolated as we were from national boundaries and international flights, presumed similar, as evidenced by that March’s issue of Findlay Market’s newsletter which advertised an upcoming Customer Appreciation Day and the city’s beloved Opening Day Parade for the Cincinnati Reds.
Then something changed. A pandemic hit. Businesses limited customers in a store based on square footage. A controversy surrounding masks tore through the country. To the outsider, the market was altered quite a bit. Due to health regulations, the signature red market tables in the biergarten were relocated to eliminate congregating, dispersed around the market house and set six feet apart, where it had been customary for the tables of red to be strung together like Christmas lights while vendors, friends, and those who made Sunday their Funday at the market were squeezed in alongside one another.
To those of us who call Findlay Market our home grocery, or pantry as I like to call it, much stayed the same, other than the circles on the concrete noting “stand here.” The people whose livelihoods we supported, while they in turn supported ours, remained. Each week, we bought our usuals: goetta, local mushrooms, and coffee.
While many customers were challenged to social distance, the small format of the market house and the surrounding shops offered a layer of intentional protection for consumers that larger stores couldn’t offer. Living a mere seven-minute walk from the market, we not only avoided the bigger grocery options but evaded other market shoppers by frequenting the market on weekdays. Others did do so via Findlay Market’s grocery app, which had been in the works and launched just in time for the pandemic. Customers who wanted to patronize the businesses but needed to stay at home for health, age or other reasons were given the technology to do so. Sales via the app made up for lack of foot traffic.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any foot traffic. We were the foot traffic.
The congregation of shoppers at a public market is the most devoted kind. They understand the basis of retail is not dollars, but senses. An open and thriving market equates to an open and thriving life. Market patrons are not looking for crates or cases of apples, oranges, or toilet paper because they don’t want to come that often. They buy smaller quantities because they DO want to come frequently, as Mark and I tended to do on both Saturdays and Sundays.
At the market, community engagement is defined first by who customers interact with, run into, or meet new that day, and second by what mouth-watering produce or accoutrements they taste that day or what decadent or exotic smells they carry home.
We continued our weekend treks to the only place we felt secure, other than home. The market. We called it the market, like my siblings and I called the area where we played softball and baseball the fields. The market didn’t stand for just food or beverages. Saying the market meant Saturdays. The weekend. It meant I needed to expand my cooking repertoire. It also meant I’m lonely and need to see people.
Some might argue public markets, like the one in Wuhan, were the basis of viral spread. Several researchers believe the coronavirus almost didn’t become a pandemic. Had one or two persons in Wuhan stayed home, after not feeling well, the virus might have been contained or died. It wasn’t the market itself, but individual choices that led to a reaction that labeled a pandemic.
Out in the fresh air through four seasons at the market, we walked and shopped and sat. We could place an order for arepas and gulp it down with Topochico while seated outside distanced from one another, yet within speaking (not spittin’) distance to people we knew.
The vendors became our constancy, the conduit of information, as opposed to the other way around.
They could tell us how the pandemic was going, looking at it from the inside out. How many customers they were limited to, what supplies were running low (yeast), and how much alcohol everyone was consuming (a lot). How they were impacted at home, like Ed and Karen Wildey, owners of Wildey’s Flower Farm, whose daughter spent her freshman year in college at home. And it was a way of supporting our neighbors, in way that Kroger, while they maintained their corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, was not entirely local.
Did my shopping habits change? Yes. But only in that our tastes trended toward international flavors throughout the pandemic, in an experimental way, and also in desperation to brighten up the blandness of our days. I stocked up on gojuchang sauce and concocted an amaro using Colonel D’s gentian root and Maverick’s chocolate cocoa nibs. Our proximity to Findlay allowed us to expand our palates, our imaginations, and our Covid circles.
Given the climate of the civil unrest and Asian hate which continued to percolate throughout the country, we could patronize an array of businesses like The Empanadas Box and Saigon Market where we bought bean sprouts — and more, because a minimum purchase was required when paying by credit. There were the prepared cakes of My Momma’s Kitchen, Nay Nay’s bread, and baklava oozing with honey from the Olive Tree. In a way, we supported local by buying global.
However one defined normal over the past months, our Saturdays and Sundays and weekdays at Findlay Market were the closest we ever came to feeling as such. Stepping into the sun a full year later, I realize that feeling never truly went away.