Dec 15, 2005: Shopping, with an Urban Appeal

By Lori Montgomery Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005; Page DZ01

Across the way, the tables are piled high with scarves woven from Bolivian alpaca in lush shades of persimmon, sable and teal. Two stalls down, a young woman peddles silver jewelry rich with turquoise and jade. And here's a fellow offering homemade shea butter soap perfumed with jasmine and lavender -- along with free cups of hot apple cider to help patrons ward off the cold.
Lisa Harris and her friend Pam Gault eagerly accepted the steaming cups as they rummaged through their bags, comparing shopping trophies. The women, government lawyers who work in downtown Washington, scooped up heaps of the fragrant soaps to give as Christmas gifts.
"This place is fantastic!" Harris said, gesturing with her gloved hands to the outdoor market stalls, the guitarist crooning holiday tunes, the Christmas lights twinkling against a darkening December sky. "It's so nice to be able to come somewhere close to where you work to find things like this."
For the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in Washington's booming central business district, the Christmas season just got a little funkier. Through next Wednesday, dozens of vendors will gather each morning on the freshly repaved site of the city's demolished convention center for the Downtown Holiday Market, a fledgling attempt to bring the Christmas markets of Old Europe to the button-down heart of the nation's capital.
So far, the market is operating at a bit of a disadvantage. Located on what has essentially become a 10-acre parking lot at the corner of 11th and H streets NW, the market has no charming, ancient buildings to attract tourists. There are no greengrocers or cheese vendors or boulangeries to draw commuters. And there certainly is no Gluehwein, the hot, cinnamon-spiced red wine that lures merrymakers to winter markets across Germany. Shivering vendors complained that the D.C. market doesn't even sell hot coffee.
And then there's the weather. On several days since the outdoor market made its debut on Dec. 1, the District suffered snow, ice and bone-chilling cold.
But on streets awash with chain stores and corporate logos, the market adds a refreshing bit of urban character. There's a rib shack so good that 20 people were waiting to order lunch on a recent frigid day. There's a stall with gorgeous, color-saturated paintings of D.C. rowhouses. And there's a stock of small- and medium-size Christmas trees specially selected to fit in the smaller living rooms of the renters and condo dwellers who populate the once-desolate neighborhood.
"The day the trees arrived, they sold one right off the truck. We were pretty excited we had our first sale two days before the market even opened," said Claire Carlin, special events manager for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID), which is helping to run the event.
The market is just the beginning for the prime location. The vast convention center site is one of the largest open spaces in Washington not controlled by the National Park Service, Carlin said. When news spread that the spot would be available over the next three years while the city works on a permanent development plan, Carlin began getting calls from concert promoters, carnivals, even Cirque du Soleil.
"If an event is on national park property, you can't sell any goods or merchandise with the exception of pins and bumper stickers. So you can't sell a T-shirt for your event," Carlin said. "It's hard to sell food. And you can never sell alcohol on park land. These are all amenities that help event producers cover costs."
Though nothing is scheduled, "everything is on the table right now," Carlin said. In the meantime, the BID is working hard to promote the holiday market so people learn to watch the site for special events and entertainment.
Some vendors might wish they would work a little harder. Most are accustomed to the crowds at Capitol Hill's thriving Eastern Market. At the downtown site, by contrast, the 60-some vendors outnumbered their customers on a recent weekday afternoon. Several said they hadn't made a sale all day.
"This might wind up being a good place if they keep it going in the spring," said a glum-looking Anthony Venturini, who drove down from Baltimore to sell CDs and DVDs. "But you've got to pay your dues," he said. "They should have started in September or October to get a good market going."
Others were more sanguine about the sluggish pace of sales.
"It's slow, but I think this has a lot of potential," said Leah Sturgis, a jewelry maker who moved from Alaska to Alexandria a few years ago. "There's a lot of great stuff here. And what a great place to do most of your Christmas shopping on your lunch break," she said, gesturing toward the hotels and office towers that ring the site.
Sturgis presided over a display of necklaces and earrings crafted from sterling silver and natural stones, including turquoise and jade. "I used to use a lot of ivory, but people get scared of ivory here. People think you went out and killed something," she said, smiling. Now she relies on porcupine quills for their soft, creamy shine. "I call my friends back in Alaska and ask them to look for roadkill. Because, you know, porcupines are like raccoons up there. They're slow."
Two stalls down, Chris Thigpen was waving his credit card machine over his propane heater, trying to thaw it out.
"It's just cold right now," said Thigpen, who operates the Epicurean Shea Butter Co. in Capitol Heights. "This market has a great potential."
Others were doing a booming trade despite the bitter temperatures. At the Tender Rib, a little carryout trailer with a big smoker out back, a long line of people -- many repeat customers -- stood patiently waiting to order chicken or North Carolina minced beef with two sides for $5. By early afternoon, the place had run out of dinner plates and baked beans, and the wait for fresh macaroni and cheese was 15 minutes.
"It's been phenomenal," said Cynthia Wallace, who has been serving ribs for seven years at the D.C. Farmer's Market.
"We're in the business district, so we've been getting lunch-hour rushes. And they have totally overwhelmed us today."
Out front, George Benton, a driver for the U.S. Justice Department who lives in Southeast Washington, and his buddy Curtis Warren, from Northeast, couldn't wait to place their orders.
"I'm back! I'm back from yesterday!" Benton hollered into the window. "We told our whole building about this place!"
"Y'all might need to start raising your own cattle out here," Warren added.
Both men said they were thrilled to have good, reasonably priced barbecue downtown, calling the Tender Rib an appealing alternative to Fuddruckers and McDonald's. They said they'd like to try the fish stand a few stalls away. And Benton had even done a little shopping, buying a sports jersey at the market.
"I think this should be here the whole year. It gives you more options, because there's not a lot to do downtown," Benton said. "They're going to spoil us for the Christmas season, and then they're going to leave."