At the cash register of Robert Dodson’s produce stand at the corner of Massachusetts and Idaho avenues, two longtime customers are engaged in a good-natured argument over a bag of fruit.
“Did you pick up these apples by accident?” Steven Levine asks Linda Fisher.
“Yes, I did,” Fisher allows.
“Well then, why didn’t you bring them back by accident?” Levine jokes.
At Dodson’s Farm Market, the small interactions between neighbors along this stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between American University’s Ward Circle and the Washington National Cathedral are as strong a draw as the produce, which regulars say is some of the best in the city.
On paper, the stand’s 19-year run doesn’t make much sense. Why would people take the time to walk to a fruit stand — a cluster of folding tables topped with an overhead canopy — when they could patronize any number of nearby grocery stores? Dodson’s regulars, who converge on the stand from the neighborhoods that abut Massachusetts Avenue near the cathedral, say the company trumps the convenience of one-stop shopping.
“I’ve met other neighbors here who I otherwise wouldn’t meet, because we don’t have a neighborhood meeting place,” says longtime customer Joyce Winslow. “And we tell each other how we make things. So I think it’s very special.”
“Once somebody’s been shopping here, they come back,” says Levine, who has been a loyal customer of Dodson’s since he started selling at his original Tenleytown location 19 years ago. “Robert has people who come by just to chat with him or to finish up their cup of coffee because they’re in the area and they’ve known him so long.”
Winslow, who recently authored the book “Star Spangled Security” with former secretary of defense Harold Brown, says Dodson asked her every week how it was coming along. “And that was two years. Every week for two years,” Winslow said.
The continuity represented by Dodson’s stand is more relevant than ever for Cathedral Heights and the adjacent neighborhoods. The massive Cathedral Commons development project now engulfs a four-acre stretch of Wisconsin Avenue between Macomb and Idaho streets, and longtime mainstay Giant Foods was demolished in late 2012. With Giant’s reopening slated for next fall, the Cathedral Heights area remains in something of a grocery-store limbo.
Throughout the upheaval, regulars say they have relied on Dodson’s fruit, gleaned mostly from farms in Madison County, Va. “The quality is unsurpassed. He stops selling peaches when you shouldn’t be selling peaches anymore, because they don’t have flavor,” Levine says.
Dodson, a soft-spoken man with a Southern accent and a small gray mustache, says he started selling produce on a whim. “When I first started at the [then] Tenley Mini Mart, I was selling pumpkins, going around to the stores. I asked the owner of the Tenley Mini Mart, ‘Do you want to buy some pumpkins?’ and he said, ‘Why don’t you sit over there and do it, because I don’t want to have to get extra help to sell them.’ And from that month that I started talking to him, that’s how I got to selling produce,” Dodson says. Five years ago, he moved to his current location on Massachusetts Avenue, in front of Embassy Church.
Dodson makes the two-hour drive to set up his produce stand each Saturday and Sunday morning from his home near Charlottesville, where he was born and raised. The stand is open Saturdays from 7:30 to noon and Sundays from 11 to 4, a late start timed to avoid interference with nearby church traffic.
For Dodson’s regulars, the produce stand provides more than nourishment; it serves as a touchstone for a community of disparate neighbors. “It’s easy to feel anonymous in the city,” Winslow says. “A place like this gives you friends, purveyors who know you and who you know. You don’t get that in the supermarket.”