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St. Jacobs market is getting back to business

Vendor Cindy Sellner of Just’a Meatballs works at her indoor stall.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

People cluster along the temporary steel fence that rings the charred remains of the main St. Jacobs Farmers' Market building, snapping pictures or just wondering at the devastation. Doug and Christine Proctor, who have been coming here for 30 years, are pointing out where their favourite butcher's stall stood, and where you could get fresh-made doughnuts just beyond the steel doors that are still lodged in a fragment of blackened wall.

"It's a major loss," Doug says. "This is the heart, the prime spot."

The inferno that roared through the building last weekend was a close-up, personal kind of disaster for anyone who ran a stall here or made a ritual of regular visits on market Thursdays and Saturdays. But St. Jacobs also resonates in the imaginations of people who rarely or never came here, city people who feel uneasy about their food supply and are inclined to romanticize a country market where Mennonites in traditional dress reinforce links with rustic life.

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When the apple juice in your kid's lunch may have come from China, when processed foods include ingredients whose origins may be literally impossible to trace, it's reassuring to buy an apple from the person who grew it. Small urban farmers' markets are popping up all over Toronto and other cities, and though they have no formal connection with St. Jacobs, each feels like a specialized pod sent out from the mother ship to dispense heirloom tomatoes and wild mushrooms.

When word came out soon after the fire that St. Jacobs would be rebuilt, it was easy for city dwellers to imagine Mennonites in black overalls hauling up timbers, as at an old-fashioned barn raising. But St. Jacobs is a business, owned by a company that was fully insured, and that may have a temporary structure of steel and polyethylene fabric on the site within weeks to house displaced vendors and protect its competitive advantage over other markets in the area. If there's any community involvement in the full restoration, says Mercedes Corp. president Marcus Shantz, it will be because people want it, not because his company needs it.

On Thursday, St. Jacobs opened almost as usual, with over 300 vendors working their stalls on the open asphalt beyond the ruined building where 67 vendors lost their place of business (25 more had places under a perimeter awning). Half a dozen inside vendors have already been given temporary places in the small Peddlars' Village building, where the meat counter that Tony Lobrutto runs with his father and brothers has set up near stands that sell Crocs, cheap leather belts and Bob Marley T-shirts.

"I'm happy to be wherever they give me a cooler," Mr. Lobrutto says, still looking dazed by the events of the past week. He lost equipment in the fire but no stock, unlike the craft vendors whose whole inventory was burned. As for insurance, he says, "Our business is mostly goodwill, and you can't insure goodwill."

A quick glance around St. Jacobs is enough to see that the whole market runs on goodwill, that intangible mixture of reputation and customer habit. Vendors who run outdoor stalls could decamp to markets in Cambridge or Kitchener any time, and several vendors say those markets are making pitches to burned-out sellers, and anyone else. Goodwill keeps St. Jacobs large and thriving, and brings in tour buses every Saturday, filled with people drawn by the region's most vigorous example of an ancient way of getting food to those who don't grow it themselves. In many medieval European cities, the farmers' market was the essential activity that happened adjacent to where you built your cathedral.

David Schuit, who has honey stalls at three farmers' markets, lost between $6,000 and $10,000 when his indoor St. Jacobs stall vanished in the fire. "I thought I was fully insured, but my insurance company is saying they don't think they want to pay us, because they didn't know we rented in there." It's likely, he says, that others are in the same situation.

Mr. Shantz says a permanent new building will probably be bigger and better than the old. Much as they loved it, the Proctors say that some Saturdays, you could scarcely move through the crowds.

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As the Thursday market runs down, Charlene Bowman is quickly selling off discounted strawberries, her white hair tucked under a traditional Mennonite cap of white netting. Business has been "great, as usual," she says, and while she too misses the doughnut stand, the tempo of actual market life seems too brisk for sentimentalizing.

"Everybody's curious because there was a fire, and they come and see it all burnt, and it makes them sad," she says. "But things happen, life is life." Strawberries must be sold. The dreaming she'll leave to others.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More


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