To the management at our treasured open air produce store, the folks matter more than the fruit.
At Fruit & Folks, that greengrocer façade is just the axis for a harmonic convergence of interesting people who come together to explore produce and talk about the meaning of life. For a thoughtful observant shopper, it’s a money-saving gem. There are always unique bargains and offerings to be found. The resourceful owners research and work with contacts to anticipate and access seasonal finds that might otherwise be thrown away. For those who adapt their cooking to benefit from the latest offerings, and who rotate their fridge produce, this store is the next best thing to shopping in Paris. It’s a Son & Pop business where Marcus Senior runs the back of the house and Marcus Junior runs the front. How many fathers have a son who follow their vocation, who take on and shoulder the family business side by side? It must be a gratifying experience for both of them.
Marcus & Marcus never seem undone over the zany outbursts of the American customer. One woman lit into Marcus the Younger, about a specific vegetable exotic to this clime: isn’t this a pretty meager selection, and hasn’t the price gone up? “Why yes, Ma’am, that it has,” he respectfully sympathized. “For this year, [international crime cartel] got it. See the United States imports the whole supply from only two plantations, and They got almost all of it.” Her expression faded down from outrage to bewilderment to contrite dawning awareness: She would just have to take it up with Them. Ma’am.
One day a man with a pronounced New York accent lost his Zen at my favorite lovely cashier over the price of some fruit. She and Marcus the Elder de-escalated and consoled the customer, who finished yelling and stampeded off into the darkness. I expressed sympathies to Favorite Cashier and Marcus the Elder, and explained to them both that back East we Anglo New Yorkers have a historic precedent for over-the-top hyperbole. “Ay-uh,” Dad agreed in unruffled calm, proceeding with his inventory, “My career was on Wall Street.” (Fun fact: That was Favorite Cashier’s last day on the job. She then invited me to her wedding. This Christmas, she and her dear husband bought me a Russian movie subscription. She texted me just today from her new city. Hello, Precious Heart!)
The store closes for one week each year, so the staff can have a vacation. Last time, I was the last customer on the night before closing. I stocked up on as much food as I could carry home. Marcus Jr. patiently waited for me to load it all on the register belt, then let me know that all of it would be free of charge, with the logic, “It will only spoil this week, Mary. Just take it.” In no time he whisked the food into my bags for me. That generosity was such a thrilling surprise; only at home did I realize that (Doh!) half the bonanza was glass jars of tomato paste from Lebanon! After their vacation when the store re-opened I marched in and surprised Marcus Sr. with the greeting “Your son played a trick on me!” He refused payment for the glass jars, but fortunately he saw the humor in my accusation, as he does in most situations. (He even composes a light-hearted monthly Produce Jingle, with featured edibles exchanging philosophical quips. I’ve threatened to submit my own ditty, with better puns, to compete for top billing on the register tape.)
The rest of the staff share the same inspired ethic of good will and kindness. They haul carts and sweep up and staff the register under the roofed open-air space in all weather year round, and in December work late hours hauling and selling a rush of holiday trees. They draw our attention to the sky during special sunsets and rainbows. They make humorous signs, and maintain the decor. (There’s a stuffed baby gorilla in the banana section, a sparkly disco dance ball overhead, Christmas lights year round, and souvenir Fruit & Folks swag). One cashier sprinted two blocks and surprised me at the bus stop, handing me back the library book that I’d left on the counter; he was not only fast and conscientious, but guessed which customer in a crowded store just might have been reading the life of Mother Angelica. Another telephoned me at home to see whether the umbrella left at closing time was mine (no, but gosh thanks). The staff welcome dogs, and keep a jar full of treats on the counter. Dogs on the sidewalk drag in their amused owners, who naturally make some purchase during their treat stop. The cashiers’ taste in store music is eclectic and knowledgeable; many of them are musicians, happy to enlighten me about the genre wafting over the sound system. One cashier heard me humming to the store music, and offered to record my singing for free, for her course in studio operations; she did a beautiful job of fine-tuning the sound and harmony tracks, and after a two hour session I came home with a vocal CD. Others are artists and writers, pleased to share updates about their current exhibits or manuscript drafts. One taught me about practical irrigation systems devised by African farmers, then moved to Africa herself to study faming there. These young people are so engaging and good-humored that back when I lived across the street I invited them all to come over after closing time for refreshments. (When they arrived I asked where they were all from, and then said “Oh wait! Sorry. Was that a creepy stalking question?” “Mary?” they pointed out. “It’s not stalking if YOU invited US into your home.”)
The pandemic shut down many family businesses in town. But Marcus & Marcus masked up, put up safety posters, adjusted to the times, and sailed through. When hand sanitizers were out of stock for weeks on end, Marcus Jr. researched hand sanitizer formulas and made up large batches with the optimal amount of alcohol plus wholesome skin-soothing herbal ingredients. He put giant dispenser pumps on the counter for customers to use as they entered the store. Business flourished. The idea of shopping in open fresh air appealed to new customers as well as old. At the time many people were stepping outside the house only to walk the dog. They quickly realized the value of a dog-friendly business for those precious daily outings.
On today’s visit, the bargain bin (50 cents a pound) yielded good quality jumbo carrots, ripe single bananas, artichokes, and limes. More important, the visit provided another missing piece in my ignorance of popular culture in these modern times. Marcus Jr. discovered that I knew nothing, absolute zero, about the world of animé; he kindly clued me in to the basic concept while trimming lettuces with a box cutter and wrapping them in twisty ties, then suggested two of the best titles for a beginner to explore. A delightful new cashier endorsed Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I promised to complete my homework report back to both of them on the next adventure with fruit and folks.