Tough bargain at Maxwell Street Market
Vendors at 100-year-old market feel squeezed by requirements
08/22/2012 10:00 PM
The Maxwell Street Market is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, marking a century since it was founded on Halsted Street and given a name in 1912.
But walking through the market today, you won’t find too many vendors celebrating the occasion — most of them are too busy trying to sell enough stuff to make ends meet.
Many say it’s become increasingly hard over the years as the city’s fees have increased and the market has changed locations from its namesake home to Canal Street and now to Desplaines Street.
Now, a new requirement from the city is looming, and many in the marketplace fear it’ll push the market further towards extinction.
Starting in 2013, the city will require each vendor at the market to carry a $1 million insurance policy. The city said it protects taxpayers against unnecessary risk. Market advocates say it’s an unreasonable fee that could finally make it unfeasible for vendors to sell at Maxwell.
In response, a group of vendors and advocates has banded together to form the Maxwell Street Market Vendors Association. Together, they’re aiming to work with the city to fight the insurance requirement — or at least make it more practical to put in place.
Among those leading the charge is Peter Pero, head of the Maxwell Street Foundation, a historically focused group that was born out of the fight to preserve the original market. The market has shrunk dramatically from its peak, he said, when it featured more than 1,000 vendors. Today, it features only around 100, he said.
Walking around the market on a Sunday afternoon, he pointed out the number of empty vendor spaces near the intersection of Polk Street and Desplaines.
“Look at these spaces,” Pero gestured. “Spaces that could be rented are empty. You can blame it on the recession, but you can also repair this through policies that are more creative by the city and more enlightened.”
Why the city would add another requirement at a time like this baffles Pero. Food vendors at the market were required to have insurance last year — a good thing, he thinks, with the dangers of food prep — but why force the market’s other small vendors to get insurance?
It’s a policy that could cost already cash-strapped vendors anywhere from $400 to $600 a year, he said.
“We don’t get it. Vendors don’t get it. It’s just one more fee on your shoulders to sort of scare you off,” he said. “We understand food vendors need to have liability; I want to know that [they have insurance]. But a guy who’s selling socks, or toys, a guy who’s selling sunglasses already has a small table. Now how does he cover liability? It’s almost a joke.”
The $1 million requirement isn’t new or necessarily even unique to sellers at Maxwell Street. It’s something the city requires every vendor doing business at a city event to have, said Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which runs the market. They’re simply beginning to enforce it for Maxwell Street vendors this year.
“We require all special event vendors, food, sponsors, all of them, farmers market vendors, whoever’s having any kind of presence on city property, to have this,” she said. “What it does is it reduces the risk to the city and the taxpayers.”
One main issue vendors have with the requirement, though, is that they’re required to get a full year’s worth of insurance to take part in the market, when they’re only working at the market for 52 days out of the year, at most.
David Petty, who’s been selling hair clippers and cutting equipment alongside rare books at the market since 2000, is leading the charge as president of the new vendors association.
“We’ve had a lot of problems down here. And the main thing now is the insurance,” Petty said as he stood in his booth last Sunday.
“We can’t support that,” he added, stopping to point out the pricing on a set of clippers to a customer. “Because what we do is one day a week here. So they want us to take out a whole year’s insurance. What happened was the vendors, they were going to quit.”
A prorated insurance policy, which would keep the same amount of coverage but for only a few days of the year, could help bring down costs significantly and make it much easier for vendors to stomach, Petty and Pero said.
Petty said some goodwill efforts have been made by Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the city agency that runs the market. The department’s commissioner, Michelle Boone, has met with the vendors several times, he said, and already pushed back the insurance deadline from Labor Day to January 2013.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in an unrelated press conference Tuesday said he had been out to the market this month, heard some of the vendors’ concerns and sent them back to the appropriate department.
“I think it was two weekends ago — it might have been three — I was doing some of my what I call target town hall, walking around to parts of the city, meeting people. And I went around Maxwell Street, meeting with vendors and also talking to the customers,” Emanuel said. “So I passed that information along to the appropriate people in city government. But Maxwell Street is a rich part of our history and will continue to be a rich part of our history.”
As leader of the Maxwell Street Foundation, Pero said he thinks the market’s stature in the city’s lore is one of the main reasons vendors keep coming, for now.
“I think it’s the history that keeps these guys coming back. It’s not the streamlined regulation,” he said. “It’s like, well, I want to be on the first street; I want to be on the first marketplace.”