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92 years in, Zerns Farmer’s Market says it will fold in September

Zerns Farmers Market in Gilbertsville, PA, will close Sept. 30 — unless there's an eleventh-hour miracle.

Zerns Farmers Market.
Zerns Farmers Market.Read moreKatie Park / Staff

After nearly a century in business and a steady exodus of vendors in recent years, the Zerns Farmer's Market in Gilbertsville has said it will shut down at the end of September.

The decision to close was announced last week, two years after Zerns management placed the 24-acre, 200,000-square-foot commercial space on 1100 East Philadelphia Avenue for sale. Although Zerns' owners had received some queries about the property from potential buyers — some from as far as London, Brazil, and Dubai — management said in a statement that they were looking for a buyer who would be "willing and able to carry on the legacy of Zerns and usher her into a new era."

In other words, Zerns — and its customers, affectionately called Zernies — could use an eleventh-hour miracle.

"After much prayer, deliberation, and financial analysis, we recognize that the current situation is not sustainable," Zerns said in its statement. "It is time for us to close our doors. Serious offers from potential buyers will be considered until the very day we close, Sept. 30, 2018."

So far, no deal has been struck to keep Zerns — a business started in 1922 by William Zern, a Montgomery County farmer — open.

Zerns, an indoor, year-round market open only on Fridays and Saturdays, comes with a hefty price tag: $4.5 million, according to its realty listing. County property records show it's appraised for $2.9 million. Despite the price of the property, Zerns is run-down, some vendors say. The parking lot is big, but pocked with potholes. The roof has leaked.

"Through the recent times, the amount of business dwindled and some people foresaw it, so it's not a total shock," said Robert Bath, who inherited from his father a stand at Zerns that sells and services vacuum cleaners. "But you just have to carry on."

Still, where else in northwest Montgomery County can a shopper find — under one roof — fruits and vegetables, boxes of vintage baseball cards, a deer head, homemade fudge, 20 varieties of pickles, a sword with a snakeskin scabbard, and a boa constrictor perfectly preserved in a tank of alcohol? Need a new ride? Car auctions every Friday night. And for $10 at Zerns Barbershop, men can get haircuts, too.

"The Market (called fendoo in Pennsylvania Dutch), is true Americana, with all her ethnic mixes, and despite suburbia and the big box stores, still remains an attraction in the rural heartland," Bobbi Gail, owner of Zerns, said in an email.

But Zerns isn't what is used to be, said Ranae Wilson, 64, who was shopping with her husband, Hurley, on the first Friday since the market announced it was shutting down. Wilson, of Macungie, says she's been coming to Zerns since the '70s — a time when Zerns was so crowded patrons had to squeeze past each other.

"My first boyfriend used to bring me here on dates and stuff," she said.

When she began dating Hurley, they went to Zerns, too.

Hundreds of people — including the Wilsons — have fond memories of Zerns. Tugged along by nostalgia, memories with the theme of "This is what I remember about Zerns" have been shared on social media since the market announced its closing.

Ask about those memories and the stories come tumbling out.

In 1997, when she was 14, Dana Gantert of Pottstown said, she started her first job at Dieter's Produce in Zerns. It was a job she said she held through high school — and one that kept her busy. As a teenager, she said, she would work at Zerns through Friday evening and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays. Despite the long hours, Gantert called it "the best first job."

"It was always jam-packed, and a lot of people came," Gantert, 35, said. "Sometimes people were looking for stuff, sometimes they had local people playing in the center and trying to get their music heard."

In the 70s, Shelly Rabuse said her older brother took her to Zerns for the first time. Back then, the Zerns outdoor flea market existed along with the Zerns covered market, and Rabuse, 51, remembers how the flea market vendors would sit outside all day, even in the numbing cold.

"I have a lot of good memories," said Rabuse, of Ardmore. "It's a real bonding thing with my brother. I mean, every time I go [to Zerns], I post a list on Facebook of all the things I bought. It's ridiculous, you know, a weird array of items you can get there. It's quite amazing."

Standing outside a stall that sells books and records, the Wilsons said they'd come back to Zerns not only to shop, but to ask if vendors were going to move their shops elsewhere. Some said they were — perhaps to other nearby farmer's markets — but others weren't sure yet, the Wilsons said.

Steve Najarian, who owns the Morgue, a horror-themed shop that sells "a little bit of everything," including a preserved boa constrictor, says he plans to open a shop in Pottstown's Coventry Mall after he leaves Zerns.

"A lot of people couldn't survive," said Najarian, who's managed his stand at Zerns for 13 years. "The crowds are diminishing. I still have a lot of regulars and people, so I do fine, but other people couldn't make it."

Bath — whose father started a stand in Zerns dedicated to vacuum cleaners in 1956 — says he'll focus his attention to his other small vacuum cleaner shop at the Leesport Farmer's Market.

And Gwen Brown, who co-owns Cards, Clocks, & Collectibles with her husband, Dick, said she was planning on retiring this year anyway.

Since the countdown to Zerns' closing has started, Brown is looking to sell off her merchandise fast, with a half-off sale. Customers flocked into her shop, glancing over Brown's neatly cataloged cardboard boxes of vintage baseball cards and fat binders of Pokémon cards. (Pokémon, Brown says, has been her best-seller for the last 10 years.)

"Unfortunately, I think the economy has kind of killed off our trade," said Brown, 86, a former schoolteacher. "And certainly, the internet has interfered with a lot of sales. So all the time, customers are coming in and comparing my prices with eBay."