Carrboro: North Carolina's Market Town

Carrboro Farmers' MarketPreviously on CityBeautiful21 I talked about Informal Markets -- events that are marked by an agreed-upon time and place to sell and buy goods, but may lack features of a permanent retail establishment.  When I think about the things that the town of Carrboro has going for it, our talent for finding room for Informal Markets is near the top of the list.  When I began researching this post, I was not surprised to find that Carrboro has been finding a place for Informal Markets in the community for over 35 years.

Like Krakow, Carrboro has nurtured an informal market into a formal one in the heart of the community- the Carrboro Farmers' Market. On their website, the Farmers' Market even refers to itself as a previously informal market!

Prior to 1977, there had been a series of markets in the Chapel Hill area, which were run informally by a group of area farmers. The move to Carrboro began in 1977 with two simultaneous events. First, a project was under development by a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, called the North Carolina Agricultural Marketing Project. The project’s goal was to provide an outlet for local farmers to sell their produce on a regular basis while providing townspeople greater access to high quality fresh produce.

Second, the town of Carrboro was investigating ways to assure that the downtown area remained an active and vibrant part of the community. In an effort to meet this goal, the town successfully sought funding from the NC General Assembly to build a shelter for a farmers’ market. The university project helped the farmers formalize an organizational structure, and the town selected The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Farmers’ Market to run a market under the new shelter on Roberson Street on land leased from Carr Mill Mall.

If interested, you can read the rest of the market's history here.

The goal of building a shelter for local farmers in the late 1970s and later again in the 1990s was all about giving permanence to an Informal Market, and formalizing it to make it into a community institution rather than an intermittent event.

The Shrimp Man
The Shrimp Man

But a funny thing can happen when you turn an Informal Market into a community sometimes attract new Informal Markets. If you've ever walked on the sidewalk across from Town Hall on a sunny day when the Farmers' Market is in full swing, you've probably seen The Shrimp Man, adding to the diversity of food on sale with fresh fish from the coast.  I've purchased both shrimp and scallops from him in the past.

Bike Swap
Bike Swap

Many who have lived here for more than a few years remember the bike shop Cycle 9 which used to be in the half of Looking Glass Cafe that is adjacent to 605 W. Main.  A few years back, on a Saturday morning during Farmers' Market hours, two blocks to the north of the market, I bought a jogging stroller at an outdoor Bike Swap and sale that Looking Glass and Cycle 9 co-sponsored.

On certain market Saturdays in the summer you can find a man with a trailer selling watermelons in the parking lot of Oddities and Such across from the fire station. Between the end of April and June, it's not uncommon to see impromptu multi-household yard sales on the corner of the White Oak condominiums property as units turn over with graduation.

In all four of these cases, the sellers are taking advantage of the foot traffic of the now formalized community institution that is the Farmers' Market, and adding to local commerce for a few hours. Beyond providing a gravitational center for other informal commerce to revolve around on Saturday mornings, the grounds for the Farmers' Market have also become home to the Really Really Free Market, the (soon to appear) Carrboro Wild Food and Herb market, and the occasional food truck rodeo. (a likely subject for a future post as food trucks represent another kind of informal commerce)

What Carrboro is Getting Right Regarding Informal Markets

In many parts of the world, governments just leave informal markets alone and stay out of their way.  In the United States, it is far more likely that a persistent informal market will be met with investigation or clamp-downs from local governments.  Carrboro has followed a more nuanced approach, first and foremost by simply not freaking out when an Informal Market asserts itself in the community.  The way that food truck operations around town have been absorbed into the rhythm of life without much drama compared to other communities is indicative of Carrboro's general laissez-faire approach.

Another key has been encouraging non-Farmers' Market events to take place at the Town Commons, and helping groups get to use the space at low or no cost, even when the groups manage to get in their own way.  The Town seems to correctly intuit that the more the Town Commons gets used, the better -- and that zero-revenue-for-the-town events are fine as long as they do not generate significant costs.

I think the final piece the town is getting right is employing a relatively light hand in terms of enforcement of codes about outdoor selling of goods. One night a few years ago, E and I were walking home from downtown and talked with a man sitting in the grassy portion of the town parking lot on the corner of West Weaver/Greensboro. He was selling lizard-themed art priced at $15 to $30 from a tricked-out recumbent bicycle with considerable LED lighting.  The cop parked in the car a few feet away let him be.

Closing Thoughts

Carrboro is pretty left-leaning, and one of the things that comes with that is the occasional "People's Republic of Carrboro" joke. But on further examination, I think you'll find that few towns embrace and support local capitalism in quite the same way.  I think a question this poses for local economic development is if we're good at this, what's the next step in becoming "North Carolina's Market Town?" How could we double down on this quality that people seem to enjoy about living here, and use it to provide more opportunities for local merchants to sell goods and to attract visitors to shop here?

My current thinking on this is informed by July 4, 2009 - the day the Farmers' Market had to take over Main Street because the Town Commons was already filled with attractions for the 4th of July festivities. For that morning, the town used one of its key assets (street space) to create a whole new commercial zone for 3 to 4 hours. I thought it was wonderful. Here's what it looked like.

In Street Farmers' Market
In Street Farmers' Market

I've heard at times in the past that the waiting list to get a spot to sell at the Carrboro Farmers' Market is quite long.  If that is still true, that's a good indicator that more merchant space could be filled here on Saturdays.  I think it would be interesting to gauge interest of vendors on that waiting list and others to see if a quarterly "Carrboro Grand Market" that perhaps closed West Weaver Street from Main to Greensboro during the same hours as the Farmers' Market, and allowed for vendors (food/clothing/art/whatever!) to sell in the street like the farmers did in 2009 -- would be worthwhile.

This cross-posted piece originally ran on on February 6th.



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