Not your typical urbane coffee shop or café atmosphere, our coffee stand at Soulard Farmers' Market is more reminiscent of a bustling, earthy bazaar. One of the earliest allusions to coffee in European literature, a 1582 travel account, described how in the Near and Middle East, "one finds quite a few who serve [coffee] in the bazaar, as well as shopkeepers who sell the berries there." Like those 16th century Persian coffee peddlers but not nearly as exotic Utopia serves gourmet coffee by the cup and sells the organic whole beans in the open-air market of Soulard, amidst the effervescent buzz of human activity.
On any given Saturday, Soulard Market is thriving with the entrepreneurial spirit of small-scale business people of all kinds, from artisans to vegetable farmers to butchers to candy sellers, displaying their produce and wares. Customers from all walks of life mix and mingle while shopping for bargains on vegetables or the in-season produce from the local growers, buying a bouquet of flowers or a cut of beef, or just feasting their senses on the sights, sounds, and smells of the marketplace.
Our rustic, unpainted, plywood vendor's stall is standard for the Soulard Market. One of the few "improvements" we've added is a tiered display that I pieced together with scrap lumber and spare nails. Over the top of that, I throw a colorful Andean blanket that I picked up on my travels in South America. With the simplicity of the facilities, we enjoy the relatively low overhead of the farmers' market, especially because the primary motivation of our business is to ensure that a larger share of the price of coffee goes to the coffee bean growers. My partner Elizabeth and I act as intermediaries between the small farmers in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, and the coffee-drinking customer in St. Louis. The coffee we sell is what is known internationally as "fair trade" coffee.
Although relatively new, the concept of fair trade fits in well with the traditional farmers' market, with its emphasis on a more direct relationship between producer and consumer. Many people are unfamiliar with "fair trade" (that's fair trade, not free trade), so much of my Saturday at Soulard Market is spent explaining what "fair trade" means to customers. We give out free sample cups of coffee, and while a person tastes one of the roasts, I give my "fair trade" spiel: "Fair trade guarantees a living income for the growers by establishing a premium, 'fair trade' price for coffee based on cost of living and the actual costs of growing and processing the coffee beans." Usually, by the time I add that the coffee is also shade-grown and organic, the sample is already finished and the customer is ready to make a decision.
Sometimes, a person buys a cup of coffee and stays to chat, often about coffee. Our small stand can sometimes gather a crowd. Coffeehouses have always been host to the lively interchange of ideas and information, and our homely stand is no exception. During the 17th century, coffeehouses were nicknamed "penny universities" for the inexpensive, informal schooling they provided (the price of tuition = the cost of a cup of coffee). In just a few months, I've received an invaluable education from my customers, many of whom are coffee aficionados.
In addition to the coffee aficionados, who enjoy the taste of our coffee, our stand attracts the socially responsible shoppers who like the fact that all of our products (we also sell chocolate and tea) are certified fair trade, as well as organic and shade-grown. We pull in the occasional bargain hunter, who shops the farmers' market to get the best deals on produce. Then, there are those I like to call "tourist shoppers," who come to the market for the unique experience.
The colorful sights of diverse people and bright produce, the sounds of the bantering vegetable hucksters and the barking flower vendor, the aroma of hot peanuts or fresh donuts all inundate the senses. After several months of absorbing the atmosphere of Soulard Market, I like to think that the taste of a steamy cup of java enhances this total sensory experience, especially on cold, winter mornings.