Photo by KIRK BELL
While a jazz band plays at the Saturday Morning Market, Brady Johnson takes time off from his stand to cut some concrete with friend Juanita Henderson.
At a tented produce stand at the Saturday Morning Market, Brady Johnson, better known as Mr. "I Got 'Em," is using a costume based on tradition to help draw crowds.
The crowd, however, which market officials say has grown upward to 10,000 per week since January, has also grown more frugal in a down economy. Since the downturn, vendors like Johnson have felt the squeeze from penny-pinching consumers.
"People just don't have the money to spend," said Johnson. "It's scary times, I don't think we've bottomed out yet."
With the burgeoning crowd on Saturdays, market officials don't seem to be worried. "Some vendors have pulled out because their products are not doing well, but generally speaking, the market is doing well,'' said Gail Eggeman, market manager.
Kendra Rodriguez of Hooker Tea Co. says she has noticed an increase in her business because she's there more often. "Last year, Hooker Tea was an occasional vendor, but we're there on a regular basis this season and being in the same spot helps," she said.
"I've noticed that people tend to say, 'Well let me see how much I have after I buy my eggs, bread, vegetables and pasta,' '' said Rodriguez.
Although Johnson says his stand is struggling, he points out that other vendors at the market, such as those selling arts and crafts, are hurting more. "People will still buy fruits and vegetables. I've just had to work harder to draw people in," he said.
Some vendors agree. "I don't have to struggle to get folks to my booth because of what we sell — our chairs are usually in use all day. But as far as sales go, I'm down by about 40 percent," said Bob Bradley of Classic Adirondacks.
"Instead of having a good week every week, I've had good weeks maybe twice a month. People don't want to spend money right now and I have luxury items," he said.
In addition to his produce stand, Johnson also has seen evidence of the tough economy throughout the city. When he isn't running the "I Got 'Em" stand, he works four days a week for the city's sanitation department, a job he has held for nearly four decades. "People are not producing nearly enough trash as in years past," said Johnson. According to Johnson, less trash is another sign of just how regular folks are struggling.
At the market Johnson dresses in a distinctive top hat and tuxedo coat with tails. Because of his attire, customers often make references to Mr. Peanut or Mr. Bojangles. The costume was not Johnson's idea, but the brainchild of Elijah Moore, the original Mr. "I Got 'Em." It was Moore who developed the costume as a way to draw attention as he traveled the streets of downtown St. Petersburg while hawking fresh produce and fish in the early part of the last century.
It takes more than a top hat and a catchphrase to keep people coming back to Johnson's stand. Scott Nemecheck has been coming to the Mr. "I Got 'Em" stand for years and keeps coming back because the food is great. It is the repeat business that helps Mr. "I Got 'Em" stay afloat.
Johnson says he maintains the same amount of people to help run the stand and increased prices on only a few items, including his famous turkey legs.
Along with increasing his visibility at the marketplace, every Wednesday Mr. "I Got 'Em" makes an appearance at Williams Park on First Avenue N with a produce-only stand. Johnson hopes to break even with the new endeavor and to reach out to people who might not normally shop for produce at the marketplace.
Even with all of the changes, a new location, increase in public relations and absorbing increases in produce prices, Johnson fears that may not be enough to meet his goal of running a Mr. "I Got 'Em" stand seven days a week.
Kirk Bell is reporter and photojournalist for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
132 Weekly vendors at Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Petersburg
174 Active vendors
195 Vendors on waiting list
to 10,000 Average attendance since January