Just when I thought we Northwest inhabitants were doomed—heading fast into a depressingly cold and wet winter, Thursday gifted the VU plaza with unusual mid-October sunlight. And I found myself lifted out of my usual depressingly sarcastic and downtrodden mood and arriving, like a dolphin arching up into the sunset, into a certain state of almost creepy euphoria.
Maybe it was the wafting smells of El Capitan’s hot dogs mingling with the Coffee girl’s grinds that brought about this mood swing. Or simply the sun. I’m pretty sure it was the sun, but isn’t it wonderfully idealistic to believe the catalyst of my mood swing was Vendor’s Row?
This is the familiar scene: El Capitan, as usual perfuming/polluting the air with sausage and onion aromas. The Coffee Girl, gripping the handle on her espresso machine, repeatedly and happily feeding dependencies. AS clubs unabashedly furthering their own causes. A retired woman attempting to infuse fashion upon the lazy Western student scene. A Peace Corps table nestled in the corner, remaining abandoned for most of the lunch rush.
Let’s dive a little deeper.
Vendor’s Row, predictably, started in the 1970s as an open market after outside vendors repeatedly requested a space to sell goods on campus. To control the proposed on campus vending, the administration limited vendor locations to the VU Plaza.
Jim Schuster, Director of VU Facilities, explains, “Initially, we used the picnic tables you see out on the Plaza, which were located under a canopy outside of what was then a branch of a local bank.”
Renovation of the VU in the late-90s brought about some change to Vendors Row. Initially, it was proposed that Vendors be in an enclosed part of the building to shield them from inclement weather. But one Vendor petitioned and won to keep the market open-air, and the Vendor’s Row we see today is the result, according to Schuster.
But today, I’m not particularly interested in the history. I’m not searching for controversy or a great story. I’m just meandering, curiously asking the vendors what they’re doing and why.
I start at The Coffee Lady. Her name is really Jen Redmond.
“I was a business major here, and I wanted to try my hand at being a business owner,” said Redmond. “I buy only local, organic and fair-trade coffee and products, which helps the whole business process. I like to feel connected to the farmer and where the coffee is coming from, the source. It’s like what goes around comes around.”
She feels Vendor’s Row is significantly important in the effort to offer students alternative consumer choices. “Bellingham is a strong community that supports local businesses. Its nice to reflect that on campus and to give students options.”
Several tables down, The Creative Frog markets refurbished and vintage clothing. Peg Nathon, the Frog’s owner, vends one or two days a week.
“I love selling here because of all the energy from the kids,” Nathon says.
A few more tables down from her the Vagina Club sells baked goods. The Vagina Club, an AS club, is selling baked goods to raise money for the clubs programming and to bring speakers to campus. Club members and students Heather Wright and Emily Faerber work the table.
“We’re promoting women’s empowerment,” Wright, a Senior majoring in Community Health explains.
“We’re just trying to get our name out,” Faerber continues.
Linda Bolinger, VU Reservationist, explains the hierarchy of Vendor’s Row and, as always, the ascendancy of the AS, “AS Clubs get precedence over vendors. Always.”
Framing the end of Vendor’s Row is a table promoting Excursion Club, a club promoting outdoor activities and creating a coop for outdoor equipment. Patrick Mori and Jake Crist enthusiastically try to spread awareness of their club to other students.
“We just really want to bring students to the outdoors,” said Crist.
Though Vendor’s Row is a nice place to wander between classes, maybe we should pause here and think of what Vendor’s Row is really offering. An alternative to Sodexho products, support for clubs, support for local businesses, student self-promotion. Though small, it is a unique aspect of Western’s campus.
Schuster continues, “The importance of Vendor’s Row has to do with its place in Western’s culture. It’s seen as an opportunity for local vendors of a variety of goods to sell their wares in a controlled environment on campus.”