Anthony Brancaleone

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the once quaint, now trendy town of Royal Oak. But, then every morning is a little better when searching for fresh produce among the many Michigan farmers who set up shop inside Royal Oak’s Farmer’s Market.

For more than 80 years, locals have been rising with the sun in order to fill their bags with Michigan apples, dried cherries, vegetables of all kinds,homemade pies, cheeses, sausage, honey, maple syrup and an abundance of plants and flowers, a pursuit that helps keep this neighborhood firmly rooted in small town tradition.

With sunshine pouring through elevated, painted, pain glass windows – illuminating village life among original wood rafters and factory style fans – visitors begin their day with a fresh cup of gourmet coffee, or tea, from the coffee stand owned by Warren, a sometimes attorney, sometimes poker player, weekend brewer. His effervescent assistant, Angie is an adorable blue-eyed blond, working each weekend as a barista, but not so secretively preferring to be out in the sun. The coffee stand provides tables and chairs, morning papers and offers customers complimentary chocolates when purchasing a beverage.

Though, vendors sometimes play musical stands, Michigan harvested honey from, le Cocoa Bee, is usually found right next to the coffee. Sold in glass jars, this Ortonville based family team, offers a variety of honey including, Wildflower blossom, honey vinaigrettes and pixie sticks for a quick burst of healthy energy. Regulars know to bring their previously purchased jars in for refills at fifty cents off full price.

Music lover and attorney, Meri Craver Borin, donates her time selling homemade sauerkraut for the good folks at “Makin’ Kraut”, a non-profit organization raising money for the upkeep and betterment of the Market. Sold in quarts and pints, original or sweet shredded cabbage (the one with the purple-pink hue), “Makin’ Kraut” is a fine compliment to pork chops or sausage, and is one of hundreds of Michigan products available to ‘buy local’ enthusiasts.

This time of year, shoppers lose themselves in row after row of colorful blooms and fragrant aromas, while strolling for homegrown, seasonal, produce; rhubarb (Feb-mid summer), strawberries, black cherries, blueberries and raspberries (June-late July), apples, apricots, peaches and melons beginning late July). Tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, radishes, beets and carrots overflow farmer’s stands and they are always willing to offer a taste before you buy.

When farm boys Doug and Brandon aren’t dragging UFC hopeful, Justin, through the fields of Binkley Farms behind the raw power of a tractor – as a ‘training’ exercise – they can be found bright and early at the market. Look for low price full bag deals late in the day.

On Saturdays and Sundays, Herman’s Bakery brings their large variety of breads, fruit breads, tarts and rolls to market, providing customers with another place to set for conversation and morning pleasantries, while Hampshire Farms provides their brick oven baked Flemish Desem-style yeast free breads, which have a dense intense flavour, and are made with 100% homegrown and ground certified organic flour.

The Market itself has recently undergone some new construction. A new kitchen has been built – completely up to city code – including a shiny new grey floor in the dining area which, aside from complaints of being ‘slippery when wet’ from several of the regulars, seems to be paving the way for further construction.

As is always the case with these things, people are concerned that the Market – originally a truck market, established as a cooperative between the then new city of Royal Oak and Oakland County, in 1925, before the present structure was erected in the spring of 1927 – might not retain the same aesthetic, which gives the Farmer’s Market its historic appeal.

Concerns, one may find valid after the city of Royal Oak has owned the structure outright since 1997 and has long ago developed Walter Gropius style lofts and condos, that remain largely empty and are a source of controversy for the city. However, Market Master, Gwen, assures she is doing all she can to modernize the facility without losing its organic feel.

On Sundays, Flea Market vendors take over with one of the more interesting selections of antiques, retro furniture, art, books, and handmade products one is likely to find. Having been around for a little over 30 years, the Flea Market brings thousands of people each weekend seeking little treasures and unique gift ideas.

Regulars begin their hunt with breakfast or lunch in the new restaurant area, operated by husband and wife team, Kim and Mark, their father, Ray, with occasional cameos by Kim and Mark’s daughter – teenage heart throb and color guard extraordinaire – Jennifer. The family serves eggs, sandwiches, homemade soups and chili, salads, baked goods and more, and also provides the largest seating area in the market. On occasion, musicians set up shop in the same corner of the restaurant, drop a hat and play a variety of bluegrass, country, oldies and the blues.

Handmade Ida Belle soaps can be found at soap maker, Mei Mei’s, table. Ida Belle offers a variety of scents and sizes of soap; lavender, rose, sugar and spice, wrapped in some of the most beautiful fabrics for packaging one is likely to find anywhere. A few stands north is Barbara’s Books, where Barb’s large collection of used books range from artist biographies, American history, classic literature, Native American, psychology and philosophical works and hard to find, out of print originals. As curator, Barbara spends a good deal of time updating her collection and offers a free book for every $50 spent.

While several vendors offer high end antiques, jewelry and chandeliers, a walk around the exterior of the building will find oak wood tables, pained glass, farmer’s chairs and other pieces of furniture, tools and objects for all price ranges. Of course, there is always the odd collectable, old camera, comic book and kitsch found throughout the market and for those seek Mr. Greg Hodges or Al, a sarcastic fixture, always willing to share a dirty joke.

Throughout the afternoon, one hears the chimes of an actual Playschool xylophone being struck by the soft mallet of the Market master, making the crowd aware of sales, specials, upcoming events or closing time, a part of the flea market experience that always comes to soon. The Royal Oak Farmer’s Market is a wonderful gathering place for young and old and a fine place for people to celebrate life.

Open Saturdays 7 am to 1 pm, Sundays 8 am – 3 pm and – here’s a little known secret – Fridays 7 am – 1pm. Free parking.