Vendors cherish independence, but say running a stall is hard work

Filed under Featured In on October 12, 2012

Veteran vendor Sol Amon has seen a lot from behind the counter of his fish shop at the Pike Place Market.

He’s seen the days when he had to have ice hauled in to keep his fish fresh, the days before ice was made by machine.

He’s seen the Market nearly go under and rise again to unprecedented popularity. But mostly what he’s looking at now is a whole lot of tourists.

It’s summertime, and the foot traffic is bumper to bumper as shoppers — window and otherwise — pack the market for a sample of its wares.

The crowds in turn attract a horde of countertop vendors and shopkeepers — an old-fashioned form of specialty retailing that appeals to people who often work long hours in return for independence.

“The reason I can stay here is because I write my own script,” said Amon, 72, who has been at the Market for the more than a half-century, the longest of any vendor there. “I like being in business for myself.”

Some work at the Market as their sole source of income, others to supplement what they make in other jobs. Some have employees, others go it alone.

It’s a scene repeated in smaller neighborhood markets, where farmers, entrepreneurs, artists and small-business people try their hand at independent business.

Markets often eliminate the middleman and bring the product straight to the consumer and the profit straight to the producer.

But direct marketing is a tough job, and, like all business, it often takes some time to see a profit.

The 185 merchants and store owners at the Pike Place Market make from about $6,000 a year to more than $4 million a year, according to Catherine Stanford, director of property development at the Market. Location determines the rent, which can range from $8 to $40 per square foot.

Tables are available for rent as well, and usually cost $12 to $30 per day.

Merchants are required to join the Pike Place Market Merchant’s Association in order to open a business there, and pay a monthly fee of between $15 and $40, depending on the business.

Vendors are finding the smaller, neighborhood markets a good place to make money, too.

The Neighborhood Farmer’s Market Alliance manages markets in the University District, Columbia City, West Seattle and Lake City. Director Chris Curtis estimates vendors gross $400 to $7,000 a day. Each market is open one day a week.

Many use the markets to try to build a customer base for a bricks-and-mortar business in the future, she said.

Only produce and other foodstuffs are sold at these markets, and vendors must pay a $25 base fee per day or 6 percent of their gross to the alliance, whichever is higher.

The U District market, the largest and most successful of the four, has 52 vendors and sees up to 5,000 people on market day. Foot traffic at the Pike Place Market reaches 9 million to 11 million people per year.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at becoming a vendor, Curtis had several suggestions.

First, check out the market you’re interested in to see if it has the customer base you’re looking for.

Then, talk to the other vendors to get a feel for potential success and technicalities, such as fees, hours, availability of tables and other amenities.

If you talk to Amon, he’ll tell you to expect to put in long hours of hard work to build a successful business. He’s owned Pure Food Fish for 46 years.

His father, Jack Amon, immigrated to Seattle from Turkey and opened shop in the market in 1911, just four years after the Pike Place Market opened.

The younger Amon started his career assigned to garbage duty for his father’s stall when he was 16. From there, he became the store’s buyer at 18 and within six years he was a partner with his dad, becoming the owner a few years later.

A typical day starts at 6:30 a.m., when the first of his 15 employees arrive to receive the day’s catch and set up. From there, it’s nothing but selling, right up until closing time at 6 p.m.

Amon’s shop, like its owner, has the look of a well-worn Market staple that knows what it’s doing.

One or two fishmongers hawk the product to gawking passers-by, while the employees crowded behind the counter keep busy filleting and wrapping the slippery parcels.

But don’t confuse his shop with a certain neighbor, which caters to a more aeronautically inclined crowd.

Amon stopped throwing his fish in 1968 when he decided that maintaining the quality of his product outweighed the kitsch value of a soaring salmon.

“That stuff is expensive,” he said. “You wouldn’t throw a $20 bill around like a football.”

Sunday, July 07, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
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Job Market
By Lisa Heyamoto
Seattle Times business reporter
Lisa Heyamoto can be reached at 206-464-2149 or lheyamoto@seattletimes.com.
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