BY LINDSAY MYERS — “Sorry to interrupt — Eileen?” a woman working the cash box of the Shlagel Farms produce tent at the Cheverly Community Market looks at her boss, Eileen Shlagel. The woman has a check in her hands and is standing across from an elderly gentleman holding a bag of produce.
Shlagel looks at the man. “Oh yeah, his check is fine. His check is golden,” Shlagel says laughing.
Shlagel continues our interview.
“I took this market very reluctantly,” she says. “I wasn’t looking to take on another one, but the people here are pretty amazing. Everybody knows each other, they know each other’s history, they know their children. Interestingly, we get included in on that. Our customers here know significant events in our lives, and we get cards in the mail.”
Cheverly has a growing reputation for its strong community and the bi-monthly Saturday morning community market encompasses everything the town is about. The market is in the heart of the Cheverly neighborhood where the town council, the police station, the park and the fitness center all sit; it features only locally grown produce from within a 100-mile radius (most urban farmers markets extend to about a 250-300 mile radius); it’s completely operated by a board of residential volunteers; and it’s intentionally designed with Cheverly residents in mind, changing every year to suit their needs.
Annalisa Meyer, the chair of the Cheverly Community Market board, said she and her fellow board members pay special attention to market patrons in order to best tailor the market to fit their needs. For example, board members noticed that many families with young children were attending every week, so they started adding programs and activities for kids to the Saturday morning lineup. One of the most popular areas of the market is the designated playzone for kids: It has chalk, a bean bag toss and cardboard photo props to keep youngsters occupied.
“We just thought, let’s give these families a place where their kids can have fun and the parents can hang out and shop knowing their kids are safe. We are always trying to think of ways to add value to visiting the market in addition to purchasing things. We try to engage our community by providing them with programs and activities that they’ll enjoy too,” said Meyer.
The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System also hosts a 30-minute story time at every market. “Miss Nancy,” a librarian with short blue hair and brightly colored clothing, sits on the steps of the city building and beckons the children with books and props, noise makers and puppets. They gather before her like little chicks, totally captivated. Their parents look on gratefully from the sides or sneak away to do a little shopping at the market.
New this year, the library also offers a small collection of books that patrons of the market can check out and take home. It’s the only pop-up library in the county. Teneille Naraine, one of the library staff members working at the market, says several groups have shown interest in library programming, but only Cheverly has ever followed through.
“No one ever does the paperwork, but the [Cheverly representatives] were like, ‘No! We are definitely going to make this happen,’” said Naraine.
“And this isn’t even our weekend to work!” Miss Nancy chimed into Naraine’s story. “We make it work because we love these people.”
Nearly everyone I spoke with at the market made similar comments about the Cheverly community. Annalisa Meyer said she was drawn to the neighborhood about five years ago because she heard the people here aren’t like any others.
“I use the word Mayberry very lightly,” said Meyer referencing the fictional town in “The Andy Griffith Show,” “but it’s kind of true. It’s a place where you know your neighbors.”
Meyer told a story about how she had neighbors knocking on her door at 8 p.m. on the first day she moved into the neighborhood. They came bearing a welcome bag and plate of brownies.
“We were coming from DC. When someone knocks on your door at 8 p.m. in DC, you’re afraid, but here there’s a town welcome committee and it’s just something they do. It’s a spirit that has been in this community for a long time.”
In front of the music tent at the market, there are six or eight long plastic picnic tables set up with a bunch of folding chairs scattered around. The tables are nearly full with market goers enjoying fresh croissants or homemade sausage sandwiches. Some sit chatting with friends, bags of peaches and loaves of bread piled high between them. The thing that stands out about the scene is how integrated the group is. People lean over the back of their chairs chatting with neighbors at other tables or call out to those still meandering through the vendor stalls. A couple of kids weave in and out of the chairs, alternatively begging their parents for money or playing some made-up game with friends. The market is more than just a place to buy fresh food; it offers friends and neighbors the opportunity to sit together, eat together, relax together on a weekend morning. It’s an opportunity to live a small town life in the suburb of a big city. And these people sitting at the market, they seem happy.
“I don’t know,” says Meyer. “It just feels really special here.”