The Art of Persistence: Eastern Market and Its Small Businesses

AAJA JCamp
6 min readAug 18, 2023

By Teresa Fang, AAJA JCamp 2023 — Washington D.C.

“Kidpreneur” Alejandro Buxton was inspired to start his own organic candle business at age nine to help his mom, who suffered from frequent headaches caused by synthetic candles.

The now-13-year-old is one of hundreds of Eastern Market stalwarts that have persisted through fire, global pandemics and modernization to sell their wares and art to Washington, D.C’s Capitol Hill community.

Eastern Market is celebrating its 150th anniversary — a century and a half of persisting through modernization efforts thanks to the generosity of supporters with big hearts. The celebration plans had been in the works since early March, and events will run till November, with an anniversary celebration of all-day family activities and a party. The events calendar is still being determined, but stakeholders and community members plan to meet again as they focus on events in the fall.

Capitol Hill residents are passionate about the village square and the wonders it offers: it’s the place to go if you forgot lunch, it’s where people meet up with long-time friends, the time where you can immerse yourself in the tendrils of smell and sight.

“I love it. I think it’s a great place to bring people together,” said Izzy Villaneal, 21, and a current student at the University of California in Berkeley. Her parents used to run a jewelry booth at Eastern Market, and she has been visiting each year since she was 12. “So, for me, this is like a full-circle tradition.”

150 Years of Community

German-born architect Adolf Cluss designed the Eastern Market as seen today, completed in 1873. Eastern Market became a hub for activity, but its role as a convenient food seller to the community gradually diminished. With prevailing modernization, including refrigeration, the rise of modern supermarkets — including one chain that opened across the street — and the city’s urge to demolish older constructions, the market’s future was imperiled.

Neighboring markets closed or were demolished throughout the city but residents resisted D.C. officials’ moves to shut Eastern Market down.

A 2007 fire damaged the original Eastern Market building and the community rallied to rebuild and restore the 134-year-old landmark at a cost of $22 million.

“After the big fire, they had to rebuild everything, so there was a lot of drama in this neighborhood,” said Dennis DeWees, the owner of Groovy DC Cards & Gifts, a shop inside a historic townhome in the Eastern Market neighborhood.

One of the longest-standing shops in Eastern Market, Capitol Hill Books, opened in 1991 but the building was constructed in the late 19th century. The store was founded by Bill Kerr, who had lived upstairs and worked downstairs in the store, while also holding a job at The Washington Post. When Kerr died in 1993, Jim Poole jumped in to buy the store in 1995 to keep it open. Eventually, the store expanded into all three of its floors and continues to carry on Kerr’s love for used books.

Aaron Beckwith, the 42-year-old third-generation owner of the bookstore, has been working here since 2004. The bookstore has come to serve as a “social nexus” for his family and friends. The store’s back patio had even served as the place for his wedding reception. After the 2007 fire, Beckwith watched the city transform.

“I’ve seen so many places come and go with high rents and everything, so I think it’s nice to have an independent place that had a foothold in the area for such a long period in this community,” said Beckwith, who is planning to run the bookstore for as long as possible.

Community of Booths

Masani twists wires to make a giraffe sculpture.

Artist Manatho Shumba Masani, 53, refashions aluminum cans into animal sculptures, most of which represent his favorite, including the giraffe (there were 33 at the time of this interview). When the market was expanding after the fire, Masani and his booth persisted through the construction dust to the point of his doctor telling him he contracted a respiratory sickness.

“Folks ask me, ‘how he get that good spot?’” Masani said. “I earned this spot right here because nobody wanted to set up down here when I first started setting up. There was construction, and I set up in the mud for two, three years.”

He grinned proudly while his fingers twisted wires to make yet another book-sized giraffe, a process he has been perfecting for more than 20 years.

“I saw the vision and I knew that when they finished, it was gonna be prime real estate. And now it is. I made my market, and now this is my spot.” he said.

The pandemic shut down Eastern Market for the first time since the fire. Despite the challenge of being isolated from the daily on-the-street environment, it was also an opportunity for many artists.

“When they shut Eastern Market down, that was the first time I was ever told ‘No, you can’t do what you love to do.’” said Canimals’ owner Masani. He stopped making art, but had cash tucked away. He moved to rural Virginia to study trees and meditate. “It was really chaotic, but since I was focusing on myself, it turned out to be a great experience.”

During the pandemic, Masani handcrafted a bamboo rain stick for meditation.

Anuradha Mehra, a first-generation Indian immigrant and owner of the IndiBlossom booth, found making art during the pandemic to be therapeutic. Mehra integrated imagery from both America and India to capture her immigrant journey in her products, which are designed and manufactured by New Delhi natives. One of the aprons she sells depicts Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s faces side by side.

“For the two years that I was under lockdown, it was extremely hard to continue because there was suddenly a stop to many of the markets we were selling at,” Mehra said. She couldn’t travel to India because of pandemic restrictions and her supply chain dried up.

“My art at that point in time was like my saving grace. It just gave me a reason to sort of really put all that angst and all that frustration I was feeling into creativity,” she added. “I know it’s not normally the case for all small businesses, but ironically, the pandemic actually really worked for me.”

But the pandemic was also troublesome for other artists struggling to balance their art and the new normal.

Joel Traylor, who has been running his art booth for three years, said the market’s closure caused his schedule to crumble. As an artist, he enjoys creating designs and printing them onto “giftable merch” like umbrellas and tea towels. As a dad, he struggled to manage his business while his daughter’s school closed.

“In order to do anything, I started getting up at 5 a.m. and doing commissioned work and internet side projects every day.” Traylor said.

Traylor’s sales boomed after the market reopened in 2021, because, he said, people were “euphoric to get out.”

“Kidpreneur” Alejandro Buxton shows off his candles business.

Buxton, the self-dubbed “kidpreneur,” said selling his organic coconut and soy wax candles was difficult at first to do online because people couldn’t believe a kid was the owner.

“They thought adults were just using me,” Buxton said. But thanks to the market, Buxton proved he was more than a gimmick to customers and the orders came in.

While Eastern Market has persisted through the past 150 years, so have its long-time artists and businesses. Of course, the city itself has also found ways to support the market through funding, investments, and community outreach.

The market is protected by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2017 designation of the area as a full member of the DC Main Streets program, which is organized and led by local volunteers and community development professionals who lead sustainable, community-driven efforts to promote economic development, strengthen neighborhoods, and improve residents’ quality of life. By investing in neighborhood business, DC Main Streets hopes this can likewise invest in the D.C. residents.

“This is only my second year, but the people here really mean a lot to me,” Buxton said of the vendors on Eastern Market, who turned 13 the next day. “They’re always here to talk to me and comment on stuff. Everyone’s like family because you know everyone. I think that’s what makes the market so magical.”

--

--

AAJA JCamp

AAJA’s national multicultural journalism program for high school students