You couldn't build the Farmers Market today. No research would ever suggest that the public would flock to a tightly packed group of food stands and souvenir shops, with nothing better for visitors to sit on than green folding chairs that look like something bought secondhand from a community center. No investors would finance a shopping destination whose biggest restaurant is a pie shop and where national franchises are virtually nonexistent.
Of course, those are the reasons why everyone loves it.
For years when I lived in the neighborhood, I used to take a weekly walk to Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. I went for the peanut-butter shakes at Kokomo Cafe, the dark chocolate-covered graham crackers at Littlejohn's English Toffee House, and the fresh produce from Charlie Lopez's stand. The old-timers had faces straight out of my family album, and the hipsters relaxed their Saturday-night attitudes over Sunday-morning pancakes. It was the kind of place I hoped would never change.
But change has come to the L.A. Farmers Market this year with the opening of the Grove, the adjacent upscale outdoor retail complex. Imagine a Beverly Hills mansion going in next to a Craftsman-era bungalow, and you'll get some idea of the juxtaposition.
On a recent visit, I enter via the market's west patio and look around. The lines are still long at the Gumbo Pot. The east patio is busy too, its tables filled with the market's cornucopia: doughnuts from Bob's, falafel from Moishe's, and corned beef from Magee's. Then, past Gate 15, I walk from the market's soothing shadows into the brassy daylight of the Grove.
There, a living, breathing toy soldier stands before FAO Schwarz. Light jazz drifts over cobblestone walks as a brass-trimmed double-decker trolley driven by a bell-ringing conductor glides through this retail hybrid that's part Disneyland's Main Street, part Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, and part Las Vegas Strip.
Which suits a lot of people just fine. "This is the cutest place," says one woman bearing bags from GapBody, one of four Gap franchises found in the complex. Most of the other retail stores represented here can be found just about anyplace else, but the Grove's versions tend to be destinations in their own right, especially the new Apple Computers store and the multilevel Barnes & Noble.
I poke around for a bit, wondering how long the Grove will rule the retail roost before some other up-and-comer becomes L.A.'s new place to be. Walking back into the Farmers Market, I stroll past stands of Betty Boop magnets and miniature personalized California license plates for the tourists, and stacks of fresh tomatoes and ears of corn for us locals. The places of the heart can never be replaced.
L.A.'s two fresh faces
The beloved Farmers Market and new Grove shopping center are about 2 miles north of I-10; exit at Fairfax Ave.
The Original Farmers Market is the place to go for fresh pies and produce: 6333 W. Third St.; www.farmersmarketla.com or (323) 933-9211.
The Grove is the most recent addition to L.A.'s collection of upscale shopping centers: 189 Grove Dr.; www.thegrovela.com or (888) 315-8883.