“No Place Like Pike Place,” with Lillian Sherman

Pike Place Market Foundation Executive Director Lillian Sherman '91 shares some history about Pike Place, including the little known fact that people live there, and how the Pike Place Market Foundation cares for them. She also highlights how vendors have adapted during the global coronavirus pandemic, including the fish throwers and the flower sellers.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Today, we sat down with Lillian Sherman. She returned to the Market Foundation in 2012 after spending 13 years leading the fundraising and community relations effort at Wellspring Family Services and FareStart. Prior to her first turn at the Market Foundation in the late ’90s, Lillian created special events for Food Lifeline and for the Bon Marche. Lillian spent her formative years in McMinnville, Oregon (Go Oregonians!), moving to Seattle to attend SPU, where she earned her BA in political science and social services. She also holds an MBA from Seattle University. Lillian, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lillian Sherman: Thank you for having me on your show.

Amanda: Well, let’s start talking about Pike Place Market itself. It’s been a great place to visit the 20-plus years that I’ve lived in Seattle, and it always feels like a little neighborhood open market, and yet I was shocked to learn that Pike Place is the 33rd most visited attraction in the world. Our own little market. I was shocked. Let’s talk about the Market a little bit.

Lillian: Well, yes, we are just celebrating our 113th year. We are one of the oldest continually operating markets in the country.

Amanda: That is incredible.

Lillian: It is. And what people don’t realize is it was created as a village. It really is the most amazing little community, which we’ll talk about more. But I believe that’s why it is such a draw, because people love to visit Seattle and it is truly unique in its attraction. And it feels like the heart of Seattle, for sure. So we know that’s why people want to come and visit.

“It feels like the heart of Seattle, for sure.”

Amanda: I absolutely agree. I know that when I have gone to Pike Place, it feels like its own entity. It doesn’t just feel like a farmer’s market that pops up once in a while. It almost feels like you’re in a little village in Europe somewhere that just really has its own personality.

Lillian: Well, it’s because people actually live there. If you look above the businesses, there are dwellings, there are second stories. It is more than just going to a building that was created solely to be a market. It is a little neighborhood, so there is a lot going on, which makes it really, really unique.

Amanda: Another great fact about Pike Place Market that I was shocked to learn is that every business is the original. That you can’t open a business there that already has franchises somewhere else. And when you see Starbucks and Sur La Table and Beecher’s Cheese, that just doesn’t seem possible. But how unique is that all those stores started at Pike Place Market?

Lillian: Well, that’s a really unique feature that was baked into the Market’s charter. So even though we’re 113 years old, in the late ’60s, really for a decade of the ’60s, the Market was in pretty serious disrepair, decline. All of downtown was not a very happening place. And so there were a number of efforts to tear it down. And there was a group of very, very civically minded folks that were led by an architect at University of Washington that led the charge to save the Market. So in 1971, there was a Seattlewide vote to save the Market. And when that happened, and it won overwhelmingly, when that happened, it became a public development authority. So we call it the Pike Place Market PDA. And the charter of the PDA really was to make sure that it always is a farmer’s market, number one. You will always find farmers that sell directly to you. Number two, is that you will always find sole proprietor businesses. So it incubates small businesses. It really plays on the part of making sure that small mom and pops can survive and thrive. And thirdly, it will be a place that celebrates the community around us, and low-income people in particular.

So that’s why you see these small, unique businesses. And we’re all governed to this day by a Market Historical Commission, which is an operation that really makes sure that the uses and the design function of the Market stay true to its historic value. So if you want to have a business in the Market, you have to come in with a business plan. It is your only store. And it has to stay true to its origin. So that’s why when you walk in the first Starbucks, that is their original beanery, and you can’t get most of the other stuff that you can get in a Starbucks. It’s very true to how it started. And if they were to come in now, of course they couldn’t, because it has to start there and gone out. It can’t be out and come in, if you will. So it makes it a very unique mix of businesses in the Market. And we really love that part of our community.

Amanda: I love how much the community embraces the Market as its own, if you will. I was with a group of folks from out of town once, and we were standing by the larger Starbucks that’s up on First, I believe-

Lillian: It’s on Pike, yes.

Amanda: … Yeah. And I was explaining to them that yes, the first Starbucks is down in the Market, but it’s much smaller, and usually there’s a big line. So I was saying, if you want to get coffee, let’s get it here. But I will go down and show you the original one. So I was talking about the first Starbucks and a total stranger stopped and said, “This isn’t the original, you know. No, no. The original is down in the Market,” and was trying to give us directions. I was like-

Lillian: Well done. Yes.

Amanda: … Oh, I know, we’re not there. But I thought it was so sweet that even a total stranger just really takes ownership of the Market itself and all the details.

Lillian: It is very true, people will correct you if you say the name incorrectly. They really do love the history in the Market. And it really is. That makes it so charming. I think you can tell a difference when you enter the neighborhood because people live there. They’re invested. It’s very intentional with people that come there as local shoppers. And that’s all the things that we try and promote, it was not built as a tourist attraction, it is not intended to be that, it really is a community that values its community. And really is an amazing place to get to know your vendors, get to know a little bit of how the community structured it in the beginning. Locals should know more.

“It is very true, people will correct you if you say the name incorrectly. They really do love the history in the Market.”

Amanda: Speaking of unique things. It’s pretty well known across the country that we throw fish at Pike Place Market. How many years has the fish throwing been happening?

Lillian: I’m not going to recall exactly when that started, but there was a few historical reasons why it started, and one was very practical. They sit at a location where it is challenging to walk all the way around the counter. It was also created because it attracts people, and people buy more fish and it emulates what it feels like to throw fish on a boat. So on an actual catch, when you catch the boat, sorry, when you catch the fish, you throw it sometimes. But it also was, there are three other fish shops, fishmongers, in the Market. And for a time in history, traffic actually went the other way, and so they were at the end of the Market. And so they had to create a way to build some recognition for their shop and part of it became really engaging the public in more of the show.

They are a fabulous example of a very smart business. They actually operate a business motivational series that you can watch about how they wanted to be world-renowned. “Well, what is it going to take? How are we to build that part of our business?” And so they’ve got four guys that own it, took it over from the original owner in the last couple years and have really just focused in on their community engagement and what it takes to make your fish market world-renowned and what that means for your engagement with people. It’s really fascinating, and they are tremendous assets to our community, for sure.

Amanda: Who would have thought it takes too long to walk around so we’ll throw the fish over the counter for time’s sake, it’s now nationally renowned, but it happened.

Lillian: It has been funny during lockdown to watch how they’ve adapted, because people can’t gather right there in front of them anymore. And so the other day I noticed that they were throwing it around behind the counter to just engage some people. Because people come waiting for it to happen, and they do it right now because they can’t encourage people to linger and watch them. So they’ve tried to maintain their humor and their engagement of people without drawing a crowd.

Amanda: Oh boy, and haven’t we all?

Lillian: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Amanda: So as an insider that’s there all the time, between all the restaurants, the craft stalls, the meat and seafood vendors, and even the Gum Wall, what is your favorite place to visit in the Market?

Lillian: Oh, it really depends on what day it feels like. Our office is literally above the Gum Wall, so it’s fun sometimes in the summer when it gets pretty wild down there. But as far as what to eat, I don’t know, it really depends on what I feel like that day. But really, what I love about that is knowing the vendors that are there and going to say hello and making sure that everyone’s all right and spreading around the love, if you will. Some day I’ll have a bagel, and some day I’ll have fish, making sure that I’ve taken the time to visit as many people as possible. Because to me, it’s all great stuff and I can’t possibly choose for my friends.

“Our office is literally above the Gum Wall.”

Amanda: I understand. I do. We even have a hard time choosing what to eat when I get down there. And not that long ago, our office went on a Pike Place Market food tour as a team-building, fun day. And I was on this really, really restrictive diet for medical reasons at the time and I thought, “Oh, this won’t be any fun for me because I won’t be able to eat much.” And I was shocked at how many vendors have all these options for absolutely anyone. I had vegan chowder. And I had fluffy gluten-free biscuits. And here I thought I was going to go home hungry, and I was just as full as everyone else. It’s amazing how well it has adapted with the times and be able to just really serve anyone.

Lillian: Well, there’s even a great story within that about how farmers have adapted. Because you know with, especially during cruise season and lots of people coming in the summer, people aren’t necessarily coming down to buy produce. They’re not coming down to buy produce to go home and cook. And so a lot of the farmers have adapted to, here is a cup full of cherries that you can go eat right now. And so they’ve tried to make sure that they’ve made fruits and vegetables accessible to eat right now. And how do we do that? And so that was an accommodation from the Historical Commission is like, “Yes, I want you to have farm fresh produce available to you on the spot.” But what makes it really accessible is people are traveling from one place to another and don’t necessarily want to buy a ton of vegetables.

So we have adapted over time to make sure that people from all over the world can find something that they love. And the businesses represent food from all over the world. So you should be able to find something that is unique to what you need.

Amanda: Right. The one thing that has not changed in the decades that I’ve lived here is flowers. It is the place to buy flowers. And it is worth driving downtown because they’re bigger, better, more glorious, and actually less expensive than just about anywhere else. The flowers are gorgeous.

Lillian: They are. And again, within that, my job at the Market Foundation is to tell you the community side of the story. And that community of flower farmers mostly grew up in the ’70s. They came to this country as Hmong community refugees. And so, what we’re learning now is how to make sure that the second generation, their children, are interested in taking over the farm or it’s still a successful business model. And so we’re learning a lot about how to support that community. They had an amazing transformation during the lockdown of, “How do we get the flowers that are time sensitive? How do we make sure that we’re getting them in the hands of people?” And so they came together as a community and they created a website where people would say, “I have a driveway in my business, come and sell here, and come back down and get these things. So we wanted to make sure that the community of flower farmers was supported. And so they are really coming together to learn new ways, if people aren’t able to come down to the Market, how can you still support their community?

Amanda: And we definitely want to do that.

Lillian: Yes.

Amanda: It’s lasted all this time. We have to keep the Market thriving. Let’s talk more about the Pike Place Foundation and their mission.

Lillian: I shared with you the three main points of the charter and the last one of that, the community, and how to make sure that we’re caring for the community that lives around the Market. Mostly low-income seniors. Because when the Market Historic District was created, we at the same time preserved a whole bunch of low-income housing. Old hotels that were in the district and all of the surrounding buildings, we have almost 500 units of low-income housing. And so that was saved in the Market at the same time. Right after the PDA was created, they started renovating buildings and bringing business and commerce back into the Market.

And then at the same time, there were a couple of different social service agencies that were already in the Market. One was a clinic. And then the preschool that remains today was started the same year we were, in 1982. And we were created to really keep our eye on that part of it. How do we maintain the services that we’ve been providing in the Market for a long time? How do we make sure that they’re whole and thriving and a significant part of the scene in the Pike Place Market? And so we were created really as an advocate, as a fundraiser, as a way to make sure that we have kept that part of the mission alive.

“When the Market Historic District was created, we at the same time preserved a whole bunch of low-income housing.”

And so it’s a really kind of an under the radar part of the Pike Place Market. The only above the radar part that you may know is Rachel the Piggy Bank. So right in front of the flying fish sits our bronze pig, and all the money that is put into that piggy bank goes into the service model. And on normal years, she raises between $15,000 and $20,000. She’s a little low this year because she hasn’t seen as much flow. But really we want people to know that this is a thriving community, and there are several hundred people that live in the Market that are on a fixed income and yet they are as much a part of the community as all of the more wealthy people that live around the Market. You have a million dollar condo right next to a small studio apartment where a senior on a fixed income lives. And we value that interaction and support it and want it to thrive.

So at our core, the Market Foundation does have a grant-making system where we branch into the five agencies. The food bank, the senior center, the clinic, the preschool. And we have an assisted-living facility in the Market that most people don’t know about. And so we make annual unrestricted grants to those organizations, as well as we run what we call the Market Commons, which is a service provider model community center down in that newer building called the Market Front, which is on Western, that was built a couple years ago. And we run programs out of that. We have a lot of programming around making sure fresh fruits and vegetables are accessible to a lot of people. We have a safety net that really makes sure that if a hardship hits your family and you run a business or live in the Market, or are somehow connected to one of the services in our Market community, you have a safety net. And we’re really always looking for unique projects that support community-building in the Market for the people.

Amanda: One thing we haven’t brought up is the buskers.

Lillian: Yes.

Amanda: There are big stars now that had started their early days busking there and will occasionally, I know Brandi Carlile on a rare occasion, just pops up to be singing on a street corner. Just, what a great place to go to work every day.

Lillian: It really is. And we do love the buskers and often find ways to support them by hiring them for events and all kinds of things. And right now, because we can’t gather, they’re doing a Wednesday lunchtime feature. So, on the website you can find out how to support them while they can’t gather. But, it really adds to the community, they are such characters. And although we haven’t seen Brandi in a while, we used to see her more often than not. So, it’s fun to see how people rise through the ranks. There’s a couple of gals right now that are just phenomenal artists, and we love to feature them. There’s people rising all the time. Whitney Monge right now is really a hot artist and she grew up in the Pike Place Market. So, we love that part of the community that really, again, with business incubation, we’re also doing musical incubations. So we love that part of the community.

Amanda: Well, the work that you do leading the foundation, in a very real way, it feels like you’re the mayor of a small, but thriving city. It must be very rewarding and yet hugely challenging. Do you have a specific project or story that you could tell us about, riding that through and finding your way?

Lillian: Yeah. I don’t consider myself the mayor. I think Mary Bacarella, who runs the PDA, really gets the leadership award because she’s really doing the nuts and bolts of operating, which I feel fortunate that I don’t have to focus on. I really love hanging out with the people and finding ways to support the people of the Market and the community. So I get to be the community builder which is, in my opinion, way more fun than being the mayor. But, what was the question?

Amanda: Well, really just, do you have a specific story?

Lillian: Oh yeah.

Amanda: Yeah. A program or a success that just warms your heart and keeps you coming back to work every day?

Lillian: Yeah. The community safety net that we operate really is the one that pulls my heart the most. I love that we have this opportunity to make a direct investment into somebody’s life, if that’s what they need. We’ve had stories about fixing somebody’s tractor when it burst into flames in the middle of their field, and she wasn’t able to bring the flowers in and so we fixed the tractor for her. Keeping people housed. We have numerous stories where we’re either helping them from being evicted or, some of our friends in the senior center have been on the waiting list for housing for years, and it takes a couple hundred dollars to get them in, but they need it tomorrow. Those kinds of stories where, just a few hundred dollars really changes the game for people’s lives. And we’re able to do that very quickly.

“The community safety net that we operate really is the one that pulls my heart the most. I love that we have this opportunity to make a direct investment into somebody’s life, if that’s what they need.”

And in the last couple years with the creation of the Market Commons, and I’ve built some staff modeling around a more inclusive social work model. We don’t want any barriers to that. We want people to be able to walk in or call in and say, “Help me figure out how to do this part of my life.” And what we’ve been able to do is couple that with the community safety net resource. So for example, “I’m going to be evicted, what do I do now?” And we can look through all of the other community resources, help you navigate that, and add some resource to it. So it’s not just a wing and a prayer, “Here’s a few hundred dollars.” It’s really like, how do we make this a stabilizing piece of your life? And how do we make sure that we’re sticking with you as a community to help you through it? And so for me, that is just the absolute best part of what we were able to accomplish.

And I’m so proud of the staff members in the Market Foundation, and the Market Commons, for really embracing that it’s so much more than just handing somebody money. It’s really helping them navigate. And that, to me, is just the true heart of it.

Amanda: So, I said a small city, but it actually feels like a small town in that way, the way you describe it of really making sure no one falls through the cracks and we’re all in this together, which sounds phenomenal. I feel like we need more of those communities within our bigger city.

Lillian: Yeah. Well, we, a few years ago, when we were creating the Market Commons, asked what does this community mean? We were charged with, how do we increase social service in the market? And we’re like, well, maybe we need to think about that differently. And so we really took on this community model and how there’s a lot of research in the world about the social determinants of health. And we embrace that model and say, “It takes more than going to the doctor for your health to be impacted.” And so, it is about your community. It’s about your social interactions. It’s making sure you have those resources and that’s not always financial. It’s sometimes related to who you’re interacting with and what’s available to you.

And so when we took on that model of community health, it really changed the game for us in interacting with how do we engage people in the Pike Place Market? How do we make sure that we’re caring for the people that are there or visiting us as part of the social service agencies? It really is so much deeper. And I believe that’s why it feels so cool to come to the Pike Place Market, is because it really is a little village that people feel when they come in.

Amanda: It does feel like a community if you’re traveling somewhere and you’re in a small town and it has its own vibrant community feel, you feel that way in the Market. You don’t feel like it’s a pop-up farmer’s market that was there on Saturday and it’ll be gone the next day. It’s very much a living, breathing thing.

So let me ask you this. When you were back at SPU studying social services and political science, is this the work that you thought you would do? Is this what you were preparing for?

Lillian: Not really, but my path was really interesting because, I was heavily involved with the theater at SPU and very much involved with student activities. And I don’t know if you still call it STUB, but I was one of them. And so, I was a planner. And so, when I graduated, I realized that I didn’t have the lived experience to be a great social worker. Growing up in Oregon, I just didn’t have what I felt like I needed. But I could plan the heck out of an event. So, I found myself gravitating toward, hey, every nonprofit has an event, where the big ones, they have event planners. And I got into fundraising and I realized that that was my gift. I could really talk the wallpaper off a wall and make sure that people felt engaged in the organization and felt like they could contribute to an organization that was doing the work that my heart wanted to do, but that I felt more talented in a different direction.

“I got into fundraising and I realized that that was my gift. I could really talk the wallpaper off a wall.”

So to me it was, I knew I loved the world of serving people and what nonprofits can bring to our communities. But I found myself in that I can talk about them and promote the work of other people much better than actually doing the social work that I set out to do.

Amanda: And isn’t that what we all learn when you’re going out in the world from college or whatever your degree that, just because you want to help in a certain vein, there’s a lot of ways to do that?

Lillian: There is, yes. I remember going back a few years later, after, and talking to one of the classes with, Dr. Jo-Ellen Watson was my primary advisor, and I remember telling all the students that, don’t overlook the administrative side or the fundraising side, because you can have a role to play if you want to stay in this work.

Amanda: And really make a difference as well along-

Lillian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda: … Yeah. Well, Lillian, this has been great. It is really making me want to just hop in the car and get back down into the Market as soon as I can. But let’s end with the last question we always like to ask all of our guests. If you could have us all wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Lillian: I would love people to listen to each other with empathy. I think we don’t listen to each other very well, and we all just demand that our way is the right way. And I don’t think that’s working out for us very well. I think that we-

Amanda: I don’t think so either.

Lillian: … we just need to not demand that our way is the right way and listen to each other.

Amanda: Very, very, very good advice. Thank you so much, Lillian. And everyone who’s listening, I invite you to check out the Pike Place Market on their website. See all the things that are still open. All the vendors you can still support. And as soon as possible, come on back down and visit the 33rd most visited attraction in the world. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lillian: You’re welcome. And don’t forget to put money in Rachel the Piggy Bank.

Amanda: Yes. Absolutely. Thanks.


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