Not-Just-Saturday Market

Anyone who says retail doesn’t thrive in downtown Eugene is visiting at the wrong time. Tomorrow morning the bustle will begin early, as it does every Saturday from April through October. Hundreds of retail workers will build a tent city of commerce, curling itself into the Parks Blocks with fencing to keep the energy from spilling onto the street, like a teenager still confined to a crib she long ago outgrew.

Saturday Market draws hundreds every weekend, gawking at the colors, the music, the dancing, the energy, the ebullience. Emerging businesspeople are learning the organic hemp ropes, seeing how commerce rewards the inventive but also the lucky. Networking opportunities abound for vendors and customers alike.

Cities our size scratch their heads and wish for retail and business incubators, hoping for a fraction of the energy we barely can contain every week. Young people settle in places where they see opportunity. Saturday Market provides that when it allows anyone to hang out a custom-crafted shingle, even if it’s made of cardboard and crayons.

You can start a business in Eugene for less than $100. If you have the drive and the wits, you can succeed. However they may define it, many Saturday Market vendors are succeeding. Proof? Last month, Saturday Market added a new food vendor for the first time in nine years. Every vendor booth that prepares and serves food on site has been doing it three dozen weekends a year, every year, for at least a decade.

We can marvel at that success and we should. “Go team!” But there’s a “go team” style of marveling that looks like complacency, sinking into our easy chair and hooting at the television. Then there’s a marveling that involves standing and cheering, high-fiving strangers around us and maybe even painting our faces to match the action.

Saturday Market is great. It’s perfect. It cannot be improved. And we can do better.

Around this time each year, scores of Saturday Market vendors have two wishes. They’d love a little warmth. Setting up in the early autumn chill, especially when it’s wet or windy or (please don’t say it) both can be tough on the spirit.

Vendors would also love to see more people, because the lean season looms. The Park Blocks go fallow the first 13 Saturdays each year, but no Saturday Market means no weekly income.

Every once in a while, a vendor takes a leap to open a full-time business. But it’s a huge jump from $10 per week for a booth to $1000 per month for a storefront. Norm and Donna Fogelstrom saw the need and started Fifth Street Public Market as a chicken-wired home out of the cold for Saturday Market vendors. The Atrium was once friendly to small shops and vendors, before its landlords learned that office rent is easier to collect. The original Farmers Market began indoors on Broadway half a century ago.

Carnival-style roll-up spaces, rented by the day or week or month, have sprung up near the edge of Portland’s Saturday Market. A small space with bare walls, but heat and power, is all somebody needs to test their concept and their character. As we think about downtown development, can we include such rental spaces where once-a-week businesses can light and rest, before they spread their wings and migrate to a full-fledged storefront?

As Lane Community College plans a building near Eugene Public Library, those four thousand daily library patrons look like a good customer base for small-space, first-floor retail. Hundreds of local businesses have already graduated from LCC’s Small Business Management program. Hosting an incubator retail space would fit and expand the college’s mission perfectly.

As those blocks get redefined by LCC’s investment, the Atrium could be reimagined with this in mind. Or Kit Kesey might see the opportunity on the backside of the McDonald Theatre, where the bus terminal provides a constant flow of potential customers.

Our Saturday Market vendors have learned to make do with next to nothing. That’s no excuse to give them that.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) graduated from LCC’s Small Business Management program in 1999. He is executive director for the local chapter of American Institute of Architects. He writes weekly for The Register-Guard and blogs.