From the line at Zeke's Coffee beneath the Jones Falls Expressway Sunday morning, Misty Letz was doling out hugs and Christmas tidings.
"Saddest day of the year," she said before reaching across the counter to embrace a barista.
Letz had risen early to cram in a final trip to the Baltimore Farmers' Market before it closed its 36th season and left her and more than 5,000 other patrons without their weekly fix of fresh produce, treats and community.
"You get to know these people," said Letz, 50. "I'll miss them. The lady from the meat store had surgery. Now I have to wait all these months to find out how she did."
As Letz hurried off to finish her shopping before the Ravens game began, friends Rose Rutkowski and Leah Dumaine, both 11, drew bows across their violins. Their Christmas carols wafted through the underpass, and small bills accumulated at their feet for their final farmers' market performance until April.
"I'm kind of glad," Leah said during a break. "It's getting cold."
In recent years, the market has shifted its opening time earlier into the spring as tunneling technology and greenhouses enabled farmers to offer produce in May, and more recently in April, said Carole Simon, who for 25 years has managed the farmers' market for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.
Even though roughly half of the 80 vendors sell prepared goods, what began as a producers' market in 1977 has retained both its community character and its seasonal tradition of shutting down in December. More than 8,000 patrons visit the market each Sunday in summer, and organizers ease the strict producer-only rule after Thanksgiving in order to have a variety of produce through the holiday season.
"It's sad, but in a way, I think it's better that it stays local and shuts down when there's no [local] product," said Leah Dumaine's mother, Cristina Creager, who has been coming to the underpass for more than a decade. "It's such a part of the community. It's nice to come and feel the vibes."
Five years ago, D.J. McGee with Salt River Lobster set up a weekly trivia challenge — winners earn a free lobster tail — at his new stall to help attract customers. By now, those customers have become the regulars he bade adieu Sunday. (The answer to his trivia challenge: Pepsi was originally called Brad's Drink.)
"It takes time to become part of the family," McGee said. "People need to get to know you."
A few stalls over, behind a table packed with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts, Baltimore County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder packed unseasonably crisp mustard greens into a bag.
"Thanks, sweetheart," he told a customer. "I'll see you next year."
His family has owned the Bartenfelder Farm in White Marsh for more than a century. Sunday marked the end of his 34th season selling produce beneath the freeway.
"For one thing, it finally means three months off," he said.
"You don't know everybody by name, but you know their faces. They're part of your Baltimore family. It's saying your goodbyes, hoping you get to see everybody next year, because sometimes you don't. You don't know what the winter will bring."
For some, it has meant using the market stalls as a small-business incubator of sorts, allowing companies to experiment with products and grow their customer base. Before the market opened this April, three businesses that started as a soup stand, a tent for marshmallow treats and a spot for Indian food had each launched a brick-and-mortar restaurant elsewhere within the previous year. Organizers said the market's waiting list stretches about 100 prospective vendors deep for a stall, which costs between $1,000 and $5,000 for the 39-week season.
For others, the winter means reluctant trips to a traditional grocery store until April.
Siobhan and Tom Nolan spend as much as $80 a week on produce and products. On Sunday, they rolled a bag behind them as they left the market for a final time, fully stocked with special black sauce, sausage and biscuits for their Christmas morning breakfast. They also splurged on cider for gifts and marshmallow treats.
"It's a little bit sad," Siobhan Nolan said. "You get to know all your people. Instead of 'See you next week,' it's 'See you in four months.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun