After 150 years, farmers market seeks renaissance

Sean Philip Cotter

Light streamed in through the skylights from the eaves of the vaulted ceiling of the market roof, illuminating several rows of largely empty booths.

On Tuesday afternoon, around 1 p.m., the Market and Penn Farmer's Market was indeed open, as it has been pretty much every Tuesday for at least the past 90 or so years, but you probably could count on one hand the people walking the aisles.

"I'm not gonna sugar coat it — it's bad in there," said Jimmy Ilyes, the market manager. "It's one of the most down times it’s ever had."

Now, just past the 150th anniversary of its construction, the market, located right on the corner of West Market and Penn streets, looks for ways to reinvent itself in the face of changing times that have taken a toll on the once-bustling bazaar.

"The old ways of doing things don't work anymore," Ilyes said.

Better times: Sure, Tuesday is the market's quietest day, the vendors say, with Friday and especially Saturday — the other two days the market's open — being much busier. But Bob Godfrey remembers a time when that didn't matter; farmers packed all the booths, and the place featured four butchers instead of just one, as is the case now. He's been there 60-plus years.

"I've been here in my mother's belly, and I'm still here," said the Seven Valleys-area farmer, who sells produce and chicken.

Things are tougher for the vendors; it's hard work, Godfrey said, which is a reason why he thinks young people don't want to do it so much these days.

Ramon Barrera, of York City, talks with John Ilyes, left, as he orders ox tail  Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, at Market and Penn Farmers' Market. Amanda J. Cain Photo

"We're just hanging in there," Godfrey said. "It's all we can do."

One major way Ilyes envisions using much of the unused space is to grow food. He likes the idea of aquaponics — growing plants in water.

"That’d put the market on the cutting edge of growing," Ilyes said.

Though it might be a hard sell.

"York hates change," said the 29-year-old Ilyes, who grew up on a farm in the New Salem area. "People have literally laughed in my face about it."

The stands: Ilyes, who's been in the volunteer position of market manager since 2012, has been around the market most of his life. His dad still runs the sole butcher shop and is working Tuesday afternoon, cutting chunks off frozen ox tails to sell to people, who'll make soup out of them.

On Tuesday afternoon, Amina Hussein — with kids Nasir, 2, and Umaimah, 8, also behind the counter providing moral support — was making "kind of an upside-down cake," one of the many different foods her stand offers.

Hussein, who, in what seems to be a common trend among the people at the market, has been around the market her whole life, helping her mom out back in the day, said the most important thing the site needs to do is raise its profile,

"Advertise, advertise, advertise," she said.

Ilyes said much the same.

"We have to teach about what’s there," he said.

He said the area around the market doesn't have much in the way of grocery shopping, so the market can move to fill that void.

Market and Penn Farmers' Market vendor Bob Godfrey chats with a customer Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Amanda J. Cain Photo

"We want to offer everything people need to make a meal," he said.

After all, that's the role markets such as this one used to play.

"That’s when you didn't have your Weis, your Giant," Ilyes said. "It was where you got your food."

At some point — like, years down the line, maybe — the market might switch to being open every day, which it hasn't done at any point in its 150-year history, Ilyes said.

150 years: Only the building closest to the corner is really celebrating its sesquicentennial this year; it was built in 1866, with the market building expanding south in the following years,  Ilyes said.

The market building now has a few storefronts that use parts of the structure, a couple selling Chinese and Halal food, another functioning as a corner convenience store.

In the vein of Downtown Inc, which works on revitalizing the city as a whole, Ilyes hopes to make the market more well known by holding events.

Outgoing Downtown Inc director sees path to success

One's the second annual Pigs on Penn festival at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 4, which will celebrate all things bacon and pork, as well as the fact that the market is a century and a half old.

The other event plays off of some of the more off-beat foods you can buy at the market, such as pickled cow tongue or pig-foot souse. At 11 a.m. Saturday, April 2, the market is holding a fundraising event in which people can bid money to get the participating York-area officials such as Mayor Kim Bracey and state Rep. Kevin Schreiber to sample some of the market's weirder offerings. In turn, the officials can bid to not have to eat these things. Then other spectators can add to the original bid, and so on.

Half the proceeds will go to the market, and half will go to charities of the officials' choices.

"There’s some really interesting food you can get at the market that when you’re told about it, you don't really wanna try it, but it tastes good," Ilyes said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at

Nasir, 2, and Umaimah Jamison, 8, have a bite to eat, while their mother Amina Hussein (not pictured) works at Moms Bean Pie at Market and Penn Farmers' Market. Amanda J. Cain photo