Mortician Erich March was tired of seeing people in his East Baltimore community die of conditions like diabetes and hypertension. He blamed the lack of grocery shopping choices in the neighborhood where he grew up and where his Aisquith Street funeral home is located.
He and his wife, Michele Speaks-March, were determined to bring a new style of shopping to the Oliver, South Clifton and Darley Park neighborhoods. They just wanted a place where East Baltimoreans can find foods that won’t undermine their health.
“No sugary drinks, no lottery and no tobacco here,” said Erich March as he stood alongside his wife at the checkout counter of their Apples & Oranges Fresh Market, at North Avenue and Broadway, which will have a ribbon-cutting late next week.
Their new market lies in what used to a Sears auto section. Most of the traditional retailer have long since left the area which now hosts a District Court and a Department of Social Services office. March remembers what it was like to grow up in the area that used to be a center of Baltimore’s market activity. “Nothing was prepackaged and precious little was frozen. When my mother and grandmother shopped there, they went home with buckwheat flour and shopping bags full of turnips, carrots, and buttermilk. It was as colorful an urban experience as Baltimore had to offer.”
March understands that they will face competition, but for those who don’t have cars and don’t want to travel to shop, his store will offer fresh alternatives. Besides, he wants to build up the community. He said he talked with the “big stores” and they “were not interested in his neighborhood.”
Understanding that there is a large difference between being a mortician and a running a retail store, he knows there will be setbacks. So, first his wife interned at Eddie’s Market in a nearby neighborhood to learn the business. Also, three banks turned them down before they secured help from The Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia. Once they broke the barrier and got their first help, assistance from the city and state followed.
March said his store will have some competition but noted that people who live in the older neighborhoods here have few choices unless they own a car and drive to more distant markets. He also has set aside a community space for food demonstrations and healthful cooking classes.
“This venture grew out of my wife’s determination to build up this community,” March said. “You cannot do that without some basic ingredients, and access to healthy food is the place to start.”
March, president of the East North Avenue Community Development Corp., said he engaged in talks with “big stores” and found they were not interested in his neighborhood.
“I thought that if nobody was going to do it, we will have to do it ourselves. It’s a mission, an exciting mission,” March said. “We’ve had nothing but encouragement.”