If you can't buy it at the Farmers Market and Auction, you probably can't get it anywhere.
Yams, knives, lawn mowers, cows, spinning wheels, tomatoes, "E.T." and Pac-Man necklaces, eggs, nails, horses, records, a copy of "The Pathologic Basis of Disease," jam, bananas, wringer washers, tractors, pink bathroom rugs, antique and cheap vinyl chairs, lettuce, chickens, shoes, paintings of Elvis Presley and the Roadrunner on black velvet -- all can be had at the sprawling market, which occupies a collection of ramshackle white sheds on one side of state Rte. 5 in this tiny southern Maryland town about 50 miles from Washington.
Charlotte Hall's population swells from 150 to several hundred each Saturday and Wednesday when the farmers market swings into action. Local residents, tourists and bargain hunters from the city mingle at the market's 75 or so stands, picking over merchandise, squeezing fruit and vegetables for ripeness and trying to strike better bargains than the posted prices. They wander among booths filled with produce, antiques or just junk, booths with ornate signs and booths that advertise, "Special--Tires, your choice, $2."
The booths are the source of livelihood for many of those who rent space in the market, and the daily income is affected by variables like the weather, the economy and the cost of gasoline. "You have good days or you have bad days," says one old-timer. "A good day, in a way, to a lot of people down here is if they sell $400 or $500. If they sell $100, well, they're a little disappointed."
On Saturdays, the booths are the main attraction. They are joined by the auction on Wednesdays, when boxes of eggs, furniture and other items are put on the block. The market and auction operate year-round, and many a market veteran echoes the observation of one participant: "This is the coldest place in the winter and the hottest place in the summer." Says another, "It's as if the good Lord forgot to give us an in-between."
Once, old-timers remember, this was primarily an Amish market, drawing on the large Amish population here in St. Mary's County. Today, they say, fewer of the traditionally dressed Amish run booths and shop at the market, but a sign in one area still warns: "Buggy Parking Only." Beneath it, horses graze at the head of Amish wagons whose lone concession to the 20th century seems to be the triangular flourescent-orange caution sign affixed to their tailgates.
The remaining Amish stands offer produce, homemade bread and pastry, cornmeal (75 cents a bag) and jams, jellies and relishes packed in all sorts of old jars. A hand-lettered sign in one booth asks, "Please save your empty jars and bring them in. They can be reused. Thank you."
Over the years, the Amish have been supplanted by a varied collection of booths that make the farmers market part produce stand, part antiques show and part flea market. Many long-time participants bemoan the "junk" that now is sold at many of the stands. "A lot of people clean out their homes and come down here and sell it," complains one. But most everybody keeps coming back. They say there's nothing quite like the Farmers Market and Auction at Charlotte Hall.
"This is God's country," says Tommy Vithoulkas.
Vithoulkas discovered the farmers market about 25 years ago on a fishing trip with his father. He's been coming back ever since, and a few years ago he opened a produce stand at the market.
As at the half-dozen other produce booths, most of the fruit, vegetables and eggs sold at Tommy's Market do not come from home farms. Only the Amish still grow or make all of what they sell. Most of the produce is trucked in from wholesale markets in Baltimore or on the Eastern Shore, and a good thing, too -- "What we put on our truck in one night we couldn't grow on a 500-acre farm," says Marjorie Vithoulkas, who occasionally comes down from the couple's home in Silver Spring to help her husband.
Tommy Vithoulkas would love to open up a produce stand in Georgetown, but for now, he makes his living coming down to Charlotte Hall twice a week. Business isn't what it used to be: supermarkets in the area have siphoned off customers, and soaring gasoline prices cut traffic on Rte. 5 in the 1970s. And this summer, there's the recession. "It's been slowed up a little bit," Vithoulkas says. "It's getting better, though."
"Some days, it's very slow," his wife says. "It depends on payday. On the first of the month it's pretty good. At the end of the month it's awful."
Vithoulkas, like other stand owners, won't discuss what kind of income he makes. But he says, "You can make a very good living at this if you know what you're doing."
After all these years, Vithoulkas seems to know everybody who sells or shops near his stand. He keeps up a steady banter with competitors and customers alike, all the while arranging the crates and baskets of produce or making change. "Sometimes it gets so busy around here it drives you crazy," he says.
Vithoulkas hands a customer her bag of string beans and change. "Thank you, love," he calls out after her.
Carl Pratt has been coming to the farmers market about as long as his friend Tommy Vithoulkas. He used to sell produce grown at his farm in Brandywine, but last year he stopped farming and began buying fruits and vegetables at wholesale markets on the Eastern Shore.
The problem was high labor costs. Farm hands that used to make $1 an hour now get $5 or $6, he says, and he couldn't afford it any more. But he's still here, unlike many other produce sellers who no longer come to the market. Years ago, he says, 25 or 35 produce trucks would pull up to the market each Wednesday and Thursday. "Now you'll be lucky to see five," he says, sadness in his voice. "We're all getting older and business has changed."
The man behind the farmers market is Ben Burroughs Jr., a local real estate developer who bought the market, which is now about 30 years old, in 1963 and has overseen its expansion. "There are more people there now than there ever were," he says. "We have more renters there now."
Burroughs, a former St. Mary's County sheriff whose wife used to teach in an Amish school here, does not believe the Amish participation in the market has declined. He points out that on Wednesdays dozens of buggies pull up to the market.
One change since Burroughs took over the market has been the end of the auctions of cows, horses and other livestock that once dominated activity in midweek. "We don't have cattle auctions any more because there's not enough livestock any more in the area to support it," he says.
Burroughs won't discuss his earnings from the venture -- he's reluctant even to quote prices for renting stands -- but he says, "It's a good business. I enjoy it."
If you don't believe you can buy just about anything at the farmers market, stop by Ken Babcock's shed on the far side of the dusty compound. "What else, what else," he implores a customer who's buying a red-and-white-checked dog dish. "I know you need something else."
It would not be unfair to say that Babcock sells junk, and he wouldn't mind the description. What else can you say about a collection that includes old pink flamingo postcards, hub caps, a baseball autographed by the 1978 New York Yankees, nuts and bolts, an old-fashioned toaster, a moth-eaten sleeping bag and a barrel full of jugglers' Indian clubs? ("If you want to chase Indians, they're the perfect things," Babcock says.)
"I try to have a little bit of everything," Babcock comments.
Babcock, 35, did not build this collection single-handedly. He bought it last year from the estate of a Brandywine neighbor, Joe Simpkins, who had run it for 15 years and was a fixture at the market. "Everyday, somebody asks about him -- 'Where's Mr. Simpkins?' " Babcock says. "I'm trying to keep up his reputation."
Babcock has thinned Simpkins' collection some, but he's also gone out haunting junkyards and auctions looking for things to sell. He missed many of the market's peak weekends in July and August, he says, because, "I was on a scrounging sabbatical."
Rent for the shed is $100 a month, about what it is for other large stands at the market, and Babcock says he "sort of" makes enough to make a living. "It helps," he says.
One problem: how do you set the price on a piece of junk? "Sometimes I have a fair idea what the value is," he says. "I guess a lot."
You can't call John Wagnon's antiques shed a junk store, but he does admit to selling "everything from false teeth on up." Wagnon, an antiques dealer from Clinton, operates a sort of branch office at the market, one of many stands selling quality antiques.
In his 15 years at the market, Wagnon has watched the type of merchandise being offered change. "We don't have as many antiques as we used to have," he says. "There's a lot of what I call flea-market stuff."
He's also seen the changes in business volume, as high gas prices and the poor economy have reduced the number of people coming down Route 5 to the market. Yet, he says, "Money's tight, but then I find people still have money, and if they find something they like, they'll buy it.
"Some things, if I could get (them), I could sell all I want," he adds, ticking off a list of desirable antiques that includes iron (not brass) beds, dining room furniture and sets of matched chairs.
Like others at the market, Wagnon is not sure whether Saturdays are better business days than Wednesdays, or vice versa. "You get more women on Wednesday, you get more couples on Saturday," he says. "If the women are by themselves, they buy what they want."
Many customers are regulars, he says. "That's one of the pleasures I get from coming down here. If some people don't come by, I miss them. You've got the same people coming down here for 10 or 15 years."
Oh yes, about the false teeth: "I sold them to a dentist down here a few years back," Wagnon says. "They had a lot of gold in them, so I suppose he made out pretty well."