VALRICO — The aroma of pork roasting on a pit infuses the air of the open market as visitors meander from booth to booth, sampling locally made honey and cheese, offering up their dulled blades to the on-site knife sharpener and perusing the selection of home-grown vegetables and herbs.
It's a scene reminiscent of medieval days when farmers and tradesmen journeyed to neighboring villages to earn a meager living selling goods.
While the open market is no longer vital to the livelihood of farmers, artisans and craftsmen, their appeal hasn't diminished over the past 600 years, according to both vendors and visitors at area markets.
During the inaugural T Marie's Valrico Sunday Market on Jan. 15, the scene drew a number of enthusiastic customers.
"I'm so happy this is here," said Becky Phillips of Valrico, who dropped by the market's opening day at 3407 Lithia-Pinecrest to check out the offerings of the 55 vendors. "We've needed something like this in the Brandon area for a long time. I see this market growing and expanding."
That was T. Marie Benchley's reason for organizing the weekly market.
Since opening T Marie's Fashion & Gift Boutique two years ago, Benchley said she's had a steady stream of local crafters and artists requesting space in her shop.
"There seemed to be a great need for a venue in this area," she said. "I have this wonderful shaded lot behind the boutique and I thought hosting a market would be an ideal way to give these artisans some exposure and allow them to sell their products."
In addition to the shaded space, T Marie's market has two other features that appealed to vendors who traveled from as far as Lakeland and Sarasota to take part: plenty of parking in the abutting lot at the Shoppes of Lithia and high visibility at the busy intersection of Lithia-Pinecrest Road and Bloomingdale Avenue.
"It's a great location," said artist Sharon Owens of Sarasota. "In addition to visitors who came here because of the publicity, it's attracting people who happen to see it as they drive by. I'm really excited to be here. I have the feeling it's going to fill up fast."
A few miles down Bloomingdale Avenue at Winthrop Town Centre, Carolyn Scott is counting on equal success at a new farmer's market she manages. With the encouragement of Winthrop Town Centre developers John and Kay Sullivan, Scott opened the Tru-Harvest Market on the grounds of the development in October.
"This market is a little different," she said. "The Sullivans really believe in supporting local farmers so we only offer items that are locally grown as well as edible items created locally."
Limited to vendors within a 100-mile radius of Winthrop Town Centre, the Tru-Harvest Market takes place the second and fourth Saturday of each month. There, shoppers can purchase fresh produce, plants and flowers, honey, cakes, breads, cookies, fudge, eggs and jams.
Scott said the market, which attracts 10 to 16 vendors, especially appeals to the growing number of consumers searching for natural, chemical-free foods.
While a busy location and plenty of parking are essential for a successful open market, South Shore event planner Jennifer McCafferty said open markets also require a great deal of community support to flourish.
She learned this the hard way.
McCafferty started Jen's Markets five years ago at the request of the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce, which wanted a venue for the community's legion of crafters and artists. With the success of the Sun City Center market, McCafferty expanded to six markets in three counties.
However, despite vigorous marketing efforts, not all of the venues were successful, she said.
"To me, it's very important to have these markets because they give people who can't afford a storefront a place to sell their products," she said. "But a market won't be successful without the support of the community. You can have great vendors, but if people don't show up, it's not worth the effort to set up a booth."
McCafferty now operates only the Sun City Outdoor Market, which takes place at 1851 Rickenbacker Drive in the parking lot of the Sun City Center Funeral Home on the first and third Wednesday of the month.
She's also focusing on special-event markets like her Chocolate & Vine Market at Little Harbor Resort in Ruskin Feb. 11 and a market at the revival of the Ruskin Heritage Tomato Festival in May.
Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at [email protected]