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For vendors of Seattle's Pike Place Market, COVID was yet another test of survival

Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE — Like many vendors at Pike Place Market, Scott Chang isn't sure when business will resume its pre-COVID normal.

True, this summer brought welcome crowds of tourists and locals to the open-air Seattle landmark. Sales at See Lee Gardens, the flower business owned by Chang's family, are nearly back where they were before the pandemic shuttered the Market's picturesque warren of stalls and shops.

But there's another, more somber reason for See Lee's rebound: Several competing flower vendors haven't come back to the Market, or are only here a few days a week. They now sell at other outlets that don't require the long commute into downtown Seattle.

Even Chang, for the first time, is selling some of his flowers elsewhere, partly as a hedge against future COVID-related disruptions.

"We're never going to quit Pike Place," says Chang, 36, of the place that has hosted his family business since the 1980s. But the pandemic "was a big eye-opener that we have to look for other venues."

Fifty years after Pike Place Market was nearly razed in the name of progress, the sprawling institution faces another, even more complex nemesis.

 

Although many of the Market's more than 500 businesses saw solid sales this summer, visitor numbers are still below their 2019 levels. Many vendors and farmers are still on reduced hours, and dozens haven't returned or are squarely on the fence about coming back.

"It truly is up in the air right now," says Jim Johnson, owner of Olympia-based Johnson Berry Farm, a 22-year Market stalwart that hasn't been back since last fall.

Even many of those vendors who have made it back did so by shifting how — and sometimes where — they do business as they prepare for their second pandemic winter.

Collectively, it points to changes for an iconic, eclectic retail community that was facing challenges before COVID, including labor shortages and competition from online retailers and from a proliferation of farmers markets in virtually every town and neighborhood.

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