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Vegetable market is ripe for successful Halloween

First you notice the stacks of pumpkins, the corn shucks and the Indian corn all around and under the big tent. Come under the tent to make your selection and have a free sample of apple cider, and you will see painted pumpkins smiling, leering, and screaming, row after row. The Pumpkin Lady of Cherry Hill, N.J., has arrived in St. Petersburg, just in time for Halloween.

She is Charlotte Hagemann, and she has set up shop at the pumpkin patch next to Graham's Produce Market, 5701 54th Ave. N.

With her brush and oil-based paints, she has turned long pumpkins into skulls and others into brown "footballs" with Bucs slogans on them. Pear-shaped pumpkins became witches with pointed hats. A large oval pumpkin was going to wear a straw hat and smoke a corn-cob pipe. Prices range from $5 for small pumpkins to $25 to $30 for the extra large ones.

But wait. Produce is the No. 1 priority out here, so step inside the market and check that out.

Bushel baskets of green beans and okra are interspersed artistically with baskets of red peppers and lustrous purple eggplants, yellow squash and oranges. There are baskets of pecans, peanuts, avocados, salad cucumbers, pickling cucumbers and tomatoes _ Graham's is big on Ruskin tomatoes.

On one side, bins of vegetables are aligned in similar alternating colors, the purple cabbage between the green cabbage and broccoli, the wine-colored beets on the other side of the broccoli. Beneath the bins is a row of gourds and squashes.

A pineapple corer stands beside a big display of fresh pineapples, with wonderful-smelling cored pineapples sealed in plastic bags filling an ice chest. A room has machinery ready for squeezing citrus during the season.

But owner and manager Eugene Graham Jr., 33, has not limited his market to produce. A deli supplies cold cuts and a few salads, and pies and sweet bread (pan dulce) from local bakeries line a center shelf. There is a big variety of pasta, and a refrigerator case carries a few other necessities such as milk and eggs.

Basically, this is a hands-on operation, and customers browse among the baskets and bins, selecting the beans or tomatoes they want, munching on samples of bread, pineapple or pie. Big scoop-scales hang from the ceiling so customers can weigh their purchases. Indeed, few items are pre-packaged. Just the cauliflower, carrots, grapes and big bags of apples, onions and potatoes.

Sharon Edwards has been coming to Graham's because, she said, "They have a nice selection, especially tomatoes and fruit. I have six kids, and that's what they like."

Bert Zimnik is taking a watermelon and some cold cuts home. "The prices here are better than at the supermarket, as a rule," he said.

"The produce is fresh, and the prices are right," Vincent Maccaro said.

Graham works hard to keep customers happy.

"I think you have to stay competitive, and the homey atmosphere here helps a lot," he said. "Competition is probably more fierce than it's ever been."

Produce comes from all over the state and from trips to Georgia, three times a week during the summer, but the bulk of the vegetables and fruits come from the farmer's market in Tampa. Graham and a driver take turns on long trips, so he goes on about every other trip.

He has been in the produce business on this spot since 1979. As a youngster, Graham used to help his parents, Micky and Eugene Sr., with their markets, one at Twelfth Avenue and Fourth Street N, and the other at 8900 Fourth St. N. Fifteen years ago, he opened his own store a block from this one on 54th Avenue. The senior Grahams spend six months working in the store and six months in North Carolina, where they have another market.

Graham's wife, Susan, was in business with him, but she decided she wanted to teach school. Mrs. Graham got her degree and teaches at Lynch Elementary.

Papers and pictures from her fourth-grade class, pinned to the wall inside the market, tell of "An interview with Mr. Graham, Mrs. Graham's husband."

Here you will find the real low-down on the produce market owner: His favorite movie is Lethal Weapon, his favorite animal is a bear, his favorite food is steak and potatoes, and his favorite thing is "making money."