Roberto Medina often wakes up before dawn to load his family’s produce into a truck and drive to distant points across Northern Virginia. About 16 years ago, his parents founded J&W Valley View Farm in Westmoreland. Last weekend, he and his brother drove to Ben Brenman Park and set out collard greens, strawberries and iceberg lettuce in the crisp springtime breeze. Medina, 18, said he plans to continue in the family business until he graduates from high school later this year, when he plans to join the Marines.
"This market has more variety than many of the other ones we go to," he said, scanning a row of vendors set up at the dead end of Sommervelle Street. "The other markets mainly have vegetables, but this one has cookies and bread and vinegar."
Although his family’s farm visits four markets on Saturdays, three markets on Thursdays and one market on Fridays, none are as old as the one at Market Square in Old Town Alexandria. Believed to be one of the oldest continually operating farmer’s markets in the county, the Saturday morning Market Square is one again blooming with the freshest produce, plants for the garden, freshly squeezed orange juice, pickled ocra, handcrafted necklaces, bursting flower arrangements and ham sandwiches. Unlike the other markets, which are seasonal, Market Square is open for business every Saturday morning from 5:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. rain or shine.
"Vendors love the crowds, even in the winter months when there aren’t as many people," said Ray Howells, the master of Market Square. "The older vendors that have been here a long time have steady customers come every week."
<b>CURRENTLY MARKET SQUARE</b> has 95 permanent vendors and another 183 vendors on the waiting list with a varying number of temporary weekly vendors from week to week. Permanent vendors are charged $15 each month for a stall space at the market. Back in March, when the City Council was scrounging the budget for extra cash, Councilman Rob Krupicka asked budget officials to consider raising fees for the Old Town market and City Manager Jim Hartmann agreed.
"Based on the current cost to perform the duties of the Market Master, the fees currently collected from the vendors at the Farmer’s Market annually are insufficient to fully fund the position and make the Farmer’s Market operation cost neutral," Hartmann wrote in a March 31 budget memorandum. "However, if the fees are increased from $15 to $30 a month and to $10 a week for temporary vendors, these fees would fully fund the total cost of the position."
When the final budget was unanimously approved earlier this month, City Council members unanimously agreed to double the fees for permanent vendors. Fees were also increased for "temporary workers" who sell crafts from October to December during the holiday season. Although Howells said some of the smaller vendors might be inconvenienced by the increased fee, most of the vendors would gladly pay the increased fee for the opportunity to be part of a rich tapestry each Saturday morning — a veritable circus that includes performing musicians, campaigning politicians and neighborhood gossip.
"Other markets charge fees that are three or four times as much as Alexandria," said Howells. "So most of our vendors realize that increased fees are coming because they haven’t been raised for several years."
<b>THE TRADITION OF</b> vendors arriving in Alexandria to market their products dates back to the 1750s, when the newly founded port town was being crafted out of a wilderness hugging the Potomac River. The earliest known reference to the Market Square was on April 25, 1752, when the Colonial government in Williamsburg voted to move the Fairfax County courthouse from an area known as Tysons Corner to Old Town Alexandria.
"Alexandria was fast becoming the commercial center of the county," explained a 1978 history of Fairfax County. "It is not unlikely, had the petition to move the courthouse been rejected, that the aggressive Scots in Alexandria might have petitioned that the southern portion of Fairfax County be docked to form a separate county."
Supporters of moving the seat of government to Alexandria lobbied members of the House of Burgesses by offered to build a new courthouse by subscription, which would save the county government any expense for a new capital-improvement project. According to the Fairfax County Court Order Book from 1752, the new courthouse stood "on the east side of the Market Square, facing Fairfax Street between Cameron and King, nearly opposite the Carlyle House" — perhaps the first public-private partnership to be formed in the city.
"Sometimes, when it’s really swamped, I’ll think about what it must have been like in the early days," said Howells, who has been master since 2006. "It’s really a very unique market that way, and the vendors recognize how special that is."