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Before there were big chain grocery stores, small markets catered to individual neighborhoods. Residents relied on these community anchors for everyday needs. They stocked produce, canned and frozen foods, paper goods, soft drinks, baseball cards, magazines, cigarettes, and penny candy. A stop at the market was sure to include a chat with the owner or other customers.
Today these small markets remain important to residents. They often serve as a neighborhood lifeline, even more so now with the challenges brought about by COVID-19. For some customers, the size and familiarity of small markets make them more welcoming than crowded grocery stores. While neighborhood markets still carry food and other household goods, many small markets now also sell hand sanitizer, masks, and other items that have become essential in 2020.
Community Preservation Manager Charlotte Barrett is developing More than a Market: Finding Community in Burlington-Area Immigrant Neighborhoods. This project, part of Historic New England’s Everyone’s History series, shares the experiences of Vermont’s immigrant communities through stories of past and present immigrant-owned neighborhood markets.
Charlotte recently had a conversation with Anthony Tran, owner of Thai Phat in Burlington’s Old North End. The Tran family purchased the market from another Vietnamese immigrant about twelve years ago. Thai Phat offers an extensive selection of produce, seafood, spices, sauces, rice, and other ingredients required by a range of cultural food traditions. In the early weeks of COVID-19, many local markets temporarily closed in order to plan for a safe reopening under new guidelines. But the Tran family was determined to stay open. Recalling how the community supported the market in its early years, Tran said “We wanted to be there for the community.” With mask and glove requirements in place, Thai Phat continues to do steady business.
These markets are found throughout New England, often within walking distance or even right around the corner. They are not just a shopping experience. They help build community in the neighborhood as a place to buy provisions, get news updates, and share stories about trials, tribulations, and triumphs. During this time of social distancing, that connection is more important than ever.
Through its Everyone’s History series, Historic New England has partnered with more than one hundred communities and organizations to collect stories about life in New England. These partnerships have resulted in exhibitions, films, walking tours, publications, and programs celebrating stories of life around the region. Other Vermont projects include the films Rooted: Cultivating Community in the Vermont Grange (2018) and Back to School: Lessons from Norwich’s One-Room Schoolhouses (2015).