One sign that summer is edging ever closer is the opening of Anchorage's downtown markets. The Anchorage Market and Festival has been a downtown institution since 1992 and attracts locals and visitors alike. At 10 a.m. Saturday (May 13), the market will be bustling. (In fact, some vendors are up and running before 10 a.m. if you're pressed for time or want to get an early start.)
Vendors set up shop in a parking lot at the corner of Third Avenue and E Street. It's a great location – Ship Creek is just down the hill and on clear days the Alaska Range, including Mount McKinley, is visible to the north. The market is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday until Sept. 10.
My wife and I always make several visits to the market during the summer, especially when we have guests in town. It's one of those "don't miss" things for visitors.
Bill Webb, owner of Anchorage Markets, answered a few questions as the countdown to the first market of the year continued this week. Webb has run the markets since 1999.
Q: For visitors who have never been to or seen the Anchorage Market and Festival, please explain it for me.
B.W.: "We've got 314 booths that are filled with everything Alaskan and everything Anchorage. Thirty-two are food booths with everything from baked Alaska to salmon fillets and pizza -- and a whole bunch of things in between. The food really represents Anchorage's ethnic mix; we have Pakistani food and foods from India and Alaska Native foods.
There also are goods from all over world. We have by far the greatest number of Alaska and made-in-Alaska products available anywhere. There are handcrafted items of all types – jewelry, clothing and everything else imaginable. And it's handcrafted here in Alaska.
The market is also a representation of Alaskan diversity. People from China immigrated here, and every year they go back and buy products and then sell them here. There also are vendors from Nepal and various African countries and various Far Eastern countries.
The Alaska grown stuff starts in about June. We have the biggest assortment of Alaska-grown products in state and it keeps going until September. We have everything from fresh sweet corn to the best tomatoes you've ever eaten. There are green beans, huge cabbages and zucchini.
And we have a stage for full-time entertainment. It's free entertainment of Alaska nature, everything from cloggers and Hawaiian dancers to vocalists and some of the best bands in town. In the aisles, there are buskers, street entertainers. We have four or maybe six coming up from the Lower 48 to entertain, and there are locals entertaining every weekend.
Then we have people and their dogs. There is something for everybody.
New this year is a kids market. We're providing a large tent for kids to sell toys or homemade products. They give a percentage of their sales to support Kids' Kitchen.
We also have an Alaska-made tent. Everybody in there has made their own product. Also there will be an Alaska-authors tent where there will be book signings. We'll always have at least one author; this week, I think we have five."
Q: How many people visit the market?
B.W.: "The city did a study two years ago. On a Saturday, there are 30,000-plus people. On Sundays, there are 15,000 to 18,000. I think the Sunday numbers have gone up. The annual number is about 720,000.
We were at a Project for Public Spaces gathering, and there was a part on "Great Cities and Great Markets." It was said that we maybe were the largest outdoor weekend market in the United States now. I don't know if that's true, but it was astounding. I'm proud of that. I'd be proud if we were just in the top 10."
Q: In your opinion, why do visitors and locals enjoy the market?
B.W.: "We've done some surveys. The No. 1 thing is the see and be seen thing. People like looking at other people and the dogs. Half the people love the dogs, half of 'em hate 'em. It's an event, and they just enjoy being there. The second reason is the food. The third reason is the shopping. Entertainment came in a long fourth."
Q: For you, the market is a business, but what do you personally enjoy about it?
B.W.: "Before I got involved with the market, we used to love the Alaska-grown products. That was always No. 1 with us. We always went down there to buy veggies. Even now, we sure miss them in winter.
The second thing is probably the food. We enjoy going to the food court. I'm not a big purchaser, but my wife enjoys the shopping. She and her sister will often go down on their own."
If you're in town this weekend, I'll see you at the market.