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75 years of the Original Farmers Market

When his favorite breakfast spot at the Original Farmers Market switched from metal to plastic cutlery a few years ago, longtime regular David Freeman didn’t.

Instead, the Los Angeles writer brought a spoon from home. Once he finishes his morning coffee, he returns the spoon to the market’s tiny Coffee Corner to keep for him until his next visit.

As it turns 75 this week, the market remains a place where the wary can hold change at bay.

“Los Angeles is a very impersonal town. This is the opposite of that,” explains Bob Tusquellas, who owns Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts, Tusquellas Seafoods and Tusquellas Fish and Oyster Bar.

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Freeman echoes the thought: “I didn’t realize I would someday value the simple act of knowing the person who makes my coffee.”

At its beginning, a few farmers hawked produce from their trucks. Today, the market has grown into a collection of several dozen shops and restaurants at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue. Parking can be maddening. The rickety wood-and-metal chairs are not so comfortable, though plenty of people occupy them for hours at a time, day after day. Some of the shops are remarkably anachronistic, especially compared with the thoroughly modern Grove shopping center next door. Farmers Market merchants have operated for decades on month-to-month leases; some stalls post “cash only” signs.

An estimated 3 million people visit each year, drawn to a place that straddles stodgy and funky, hokey and hip.

Early mornings belong to the East Patio.

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At 6 a.m., three hours before the Farmers Market officially opens (though Du-par’s restaurant is open round the clock), the day has begun at Bob’s, where a baker rolls out loaf-sized pillows of dough and cuts out dozens of circles, deftly popping out the hole before placing them on a rack to proof and then fry for raised, glazed -- the top seller.

Soon, Phil’s Deli & Grill comes alive, with five workers behind the counter and six people ordering breakfast, including some in red T-shirts that pledge their love for Drew Carey - a ploy to get on “The Price Is Right” next door at CBS.

By 9, the tables fill up. At one sits a trio of women who started dropping by as young mothers, after dropping children off at nearby Hancock Park Elementary School.

“We used to discuss kids and then teens and now it’s parents and grandchildren,” says one of them, Katie Ragsdale.

“Each group believes it’s their place,” says David Hamlin, author of a new book, “Los Angeles’s Original Farmers Market,” written with Brett Arena, archivist for the A.F. Gilmore Co., the family firm that owns the market.

And, in fact, it is their place, at least for a little while.

“Do you know who we are? . . . That is the inventor of the Ponzi. . . . This man invented coffee. . . . We’re not friends, we’re outpatients.”

So begins a conversation -- or perhaps a performance -- at what must be the funniest, and the most frequently quoted, table in the market. Asked how long the fluctuating group of six to 10 people has been meeting, one says 30 years. In a flash, another adds, “I got here Thursday.”

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At the table one recent Wednesday morning are Freeman, who included the market in his 2004 novel, “It’s All True”; director Paul Mazursky and actor Jack Riley, who has been in dozens of films and TV shows (think Elliot Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show” and Stu Pickles in “Rugrats”).

They move quickly through the news of the day. They talk about movies and food, “and pray that we stay alive another day. Our medical reports are extensive,” Mazursky says, listing a four-way bypass, strokes and trouble walking among their ailments.

Despite it all, “we are obsessive about coming here. We feel compelled to come here,” he says.

By midday, many of the East Patio regulars have come and gone. Tourists and workers from the neighborhood are out for lunch. People roam from stand to stand reading menus for Italian, Mexican, Malaysian, deli, Middle Eastern, barbecue, sushi, Chinese and more. There’s English toffee that “is its own food group,” says Jimmy Shaw, owner of the popular Loteria Grill Mexican food stand. There’s homemade horseradish and ice cream.

“On a hot day, when the temperature is just right and the smells are blowing in just the right direction, it’s like I was 6 years old,” says Stan Savage, the 36-year-old market manager and great-great-grandson of company founder A.F. Gilmore.

There are shops that seem out of step in an Abercrombie-dominated world. Treasures of the Pacific sells scarves and shells and wind chimes. Others sell stickers, a thousand kinds of hot sauce, souvenirs and toys (none of them electronic games). Shoppers can watch candy being made at Littlejohn’s, or butchers or cake decorators at work. Teenagers on summer break roam between the market and the Grove.

The Grove. Before its neighbor opened in 2002, the market was a bit down on its luck, but among its virtues was plentiful urban parking. Its fans feared the new, fancy neighbor -- validated parking? Oh no! (Despite 4,100 spaces at the Grove and the Farmers Market, parking these days is no amateur’s game, and it can suck some of the serendipity from a visit.)

But the Grove has turned out to be something of an enabler, making the market more authentically itself in the shadow of J. Crew and the American Girl stores.

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The Grove also brought a new younger crowd, fans of the newer bars and restaurants such as Loteria.

Acentury ago, there were no crowds on the Gilmore land at 3rd and Fairfax. Arthur Fremont Gilmore owned 256 acres of dairy farm, and at the turn of the century hit oil while drilling for water. Soon his farm became the Gilmore Oil Co. Over the years, the land has been home to an 18,000-seat sports stadium (where CBS now sits), a baseball field and a drive-in movie theater. In 1934, during the Great Depression, partners Roger Dahlhjelm and Fred Beck suggested that Arthur’s son, E.B. Gilmore, allow farmers to drive up and sell produce. Eighteen merchants came, paying 50 cents a day in rent.

A businesswoman saw promise on that dirt lot.

Blanche Magee, who with her husband ran a deli at the Grand Central Market downtown, started feeding them sandwiches. Magee’s Kitchen became the first market restaurant and still sells sandwiches -- including a lauded hand-cut corned beef, along with horseradish that brings tears to your eyes -- and other foods from a counter run by Blanche’s daughter-in-law, Phyllis.

In less than a year, the trucks were replaced by wooden stalls.

Situated close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the market has long been a place where haute and homey mingle.

James Dean supposedly ate his last breakfast here. In a photograph, former President Eisenhower looks at the machine that grinds peanut butter at Magee’s House of Nuts (yes, the same Magee). The Beatles visited. An appearance by Shirley Temple was so crowded that the fire department carved a hole in a roof to lift her out.

The tables and chairs have looked the same for decades. Parents work with children in at least a dozen businesses. Lilian Sears bought the Coffee Corner from her former boss. Clinton Thompson came to work as a delivery guy at the Gumbo Pot and 14 years later bought it from his boss.

Bob Tusquellas started working at the market 56 years ago as an 11-year-old helping slice bacon and wait on customers at his dad’s shop. Today, his customers see him behind his counter, and they see him at a table with his daughters or grandchildren.

“My dad’s philosophy, and it’s mine too, is that the owner has to be there,” he says.

“They know there’s a Bob.”

As sunlight fades, the market crowd grows younger, gray hair becomes blond or black. Grove shopping bags replace walkers, short-shorts replace knit slacks. People fill the West Patio -- home to E.B.'s Beer & Wine, a bar named for Earl Bell Gilmore -- for a rambunctious karaoke contest.

Lindsay Sherman, 26, and Joseph Hizon, 29, come to sing. Sherman’s husband, Michael Owen, and a friend, Diana Cruz, cheer them on. They all work at CBS and frequent the market.

“Every time we have guests, this is the first place we bring them,” Sherman says.

On Thursday, the USC marching band, dignitaries and a cake shaped like the market’s clock tower will help celebrate 75 years of not-very-much change for this Los Angeles icon. (The official ceremony is from 8 to 9 a.m., with music and entertainment from noon to 10 p.m.)

Not that time stands still. Stan Savage has some plans: he’d like to add a traditional Italian deli. He’s working on parking and on the market’s green practices. He brought farmers back; they sell their produce Fridays and Saturdays.

These things take time, he says, not without affection. “We don’t move quickly on anything.”

And that may be the market’s formula for success.

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mary.macvean@latimes.com


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