Mortician Erich March told me he was tired of seeing people in his East Baltimore community die of conditions like diabetes and hypertension. He blamed the lack of grocery shopping choices in the neighborhood where he grew up and where his Aisquith Street funeral home is located.
He and his wife, Michele Speaks-March, were determined to bring a new style of shopping to the Oliver, South Clifton and Darley Park neighborhoods. They were not targeting the vegan or food faddist crowd. They just wanted a place where East Baltimoreans in the greater North Avenue area can find foods that won't undermine their health.
"No sugary drinks, no lottery and no tobacco here," said Erich March as he stood alongside his wife at the checkout counter of their Apples & Oranges Fresh Market, at North Avenue and Broadway, which will have a ribbon-cutting late next week.
March, who grew up above his parents' March Funeral Home, then located at North and Cecil avenues, has watched traditional retailers flee this section. He noted with some pride that his new market is located in what was once the auto section of a thriving Sears store. That store closed more than 30 years ago and is now a District Court and social services office.
"I think of the old markets, places like the Belair Market on Gay Street," March said. "These are the places that gave people a sense of community."
Indeed, in the 1960s, the old Gay Street shopping district was one of Baltimore's most unforgettable. Nothing was prepackaged and precious little was frozen. When my mother and grandmother shopped there, they went home with buckwheat flour and shopping bags full of turnips, carrots and buttermilk. It was as colorful an urban experience as Baltimore had to offer. As a child there, I imagined I was in some neighborhood of medieval London.
"Without those focal points, places like a wonderful market, communities don't hold together," March said.
March said his store will have some competition but noted that people who live in the older neighborhoods here have few choices unless they own a car and drive to more distant markets. He also has set aside a community space for food demonstrations and healthful cooking classes.
"This venture grew out of my wife's determination to build up this community," March said. "You cannot do that without some basic ingredients, and access to healthy food is the place to start."
March, president of the East North Avenue Community Development Corp., said he engaged in talks with "big stores" and found they were not interested in his neighborhood.
"I thought that if nobody was going to do it, we will have to do it ourselves," he said.
While he and his wife are part-owners of the funeral homes founded by his parents, William and Roberta March, he said they have no retail experience.
Michele Speaks-March began talking with Charles Village's Jerry Gordon, whose Eddie's Market in the 3100 block of St. Paul St. she felt to be an ideal neighborhood market model, comparable in size to their $1.3 million venture. She became an intern at Eddie's and watched how Gordon served that community.
"I told her about the pitfalls she might be getting into," Gordon said. "She has a noble mission to bring fresh foods and good nutrition to an area that is a food desert."
March told me he tapped a number of financial sources. "Three banks turned us down," he said. He finally found help from The Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia, a group dedicated to helping cities that already is active in some of Baltimore's emerging neighborhoods. Once he got started, assistance from the city and state followed.
"It's a mission, an exciting mission," March said. "We've had nothing but encouragement."