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Vendors, Customers Say Goodbye to Zern’s
Written by Brad Schlegel, Staff Writer

            Deborah Ahner watched her parents survive two major fires at Zern's Farmers Market. Over the last 23 years, she ran two produce stands at the market. 

Shoppers take one last trip around the aisles at Zern's Market

on Saturday.  The market, openend in 1922, closed it's door's

Sept. 30

            Last weekend, Ahner said goodbye to the facility, which closed its doors to the public Sept. 30. She commiserated with old friends and contemplated her future.

            Ahner, a Leesport resident who operates the D &T Produce Stand with her husband Lynn, admitted to feeling sentimental. She said her husband, who is 71 years old and had worked 57 years at the facility, is ready to retire.

            "This is a tough last night," Ahner said Saturday night.

            In June, owner Bobbi Gail Lipton announced that the market – founded in 1922 – would be closed at the end of September unless a buyer who would maintain the facility in Douglass Township could be found.

            Ahner said she's been hearing rumblings that the market would close for 40 years. Even in recent months, amid declining tenants and business, she chose not to believe the rumors. However, the unthinkable came to pass.

            "This is very sad," said Shari Mest, a Boyertown area resident whose mother operated a fabric stand at the market for 28 years.

            "There's no reason the market had to go like this," said Cathy Baldwin, a Gilbertsville resident who worked there for 43 years.

            Ahner, who turns 61 in February, has spent her entire life at the market, located at 1110 East Philadelphia Ave. As an infant, her parents brought her to the produce and flower stand they owned with Kermit Snyder. The business survived three fires at the market, including two that caused significant damage.

            The rent for stands had increased incrementally over the last seven years, according to Ahner. She said Lipton and her daughter met with the vendors last December, before the holidays, and told them they would have three months "to figure things out," before the market would be closed. According to Mest, rents fluctuated as vendors left and new businesses moved in.

            Jeff Stauffer, whose family operates a produce business at a stand between door numbers 2 and 15, ended a 42-year run at the market Saturday. He said traffic picked up significantly from its recent levels.

            For one final evening, customers walked the indoor market. At least half of the stands were vacant.  They stopped to eat pizza, sitting on red stools at a stand between two fountain soda machines near the fruit stand. Most people congregated in the middle of the market listening to live music. Traffic increased significantly on the final night, according to Brian Steele, a Bechtelsville resident. Steele said he noticed approximately 60 percent more vehicles in the parking lot then during his last visit three weeks earlier.

            "Everybody is taking one last chance to experience this place," said Stauffer, whose family owns and operates Stauffer's Fruit Stand at 3762 Layfield Road in Upper Hanover. "Everything will be gone Sunday." 

            Three months ago Stauffer described the decision to close the market as inevitable. He said the loss of several large vendors in recent years has resulted in the loss of significant foot traffic, which led to a sharp decline in sales.  "Business there has been slipping," Stauffer said in June. "They lost too many large vendors over the last few years to remain viable."

            Baldwin, who ran Zern's Family Pizza Stand for 12 years, returned to the market Saturday to see some friends. Baldwin shut down her stand, located near Ahner's fruit stand, at the end of March.

            "Business was dying," Baldwin said.  In recent years, she attempted to run the business alone. Baldwin said she shed all her employees, which included family members, and operated only with her cell phone.

            "It got to the point where I would have needed to get a third or fourth job to keep it going," Baldwin said.

            Mest, who worked at a seafood stand, ate at Baldwin's stand. Eventually, Mest worked there, as well.

            Mest, whose mother sold her stand in the mid-1990s, said she doesn't want a housing development to replace the market. "I don't believe we need another Chinese restaurant, either. I don't know kind of business is going to do well," she said.

            Spices and Such, owned by Lorraine Brinkmann, ended a run of more than 30 years at the market. According to Brinkmann, the business was ideally located near the bus drop off point.

             "We do well because we work hard," she said. "It's a business, so you've got to work at it. Spices and Such is scheduled to open at 875 Main Street in Pennsburg on Friday, Oct. 5.





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