With its weathered frame and sturdy doors, the uunpretentious little market at the foot of Annapolis' harbor hardly resembles a gourmet haven or tourist attraction.
But its unassuming appearance belies its appeal. It may not look like the best place to buy brie, but the marketplace offers a range of epicurean delights, from fresh raspberries to oysters on the half-shell, that surpass the menus at more chichi shops.
Sooner or later, just about every visitor, resident and downtown office worker in Maryland's capital comes to the marketplace -- to buy lunch, sample an exotic flavor of frozen yogurt or simply savor the atmosphere.
In the two decades since it was carefully restored and reopened, the market has become a meeting place once again, the informal centerpiece of the city's urban renewal.
For many Annapolitans, it symbolizes the best and worst of the transformation of their hometown from a down-at-the-heels fishing village to a popular tourist destination on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.
The market teems with visitors bumping elbows as they stand in line for pizza and crab cakes. But while some downtown residents complain that the market is catering increasingly to out-of-town visitors, they acknowledge that it fills an important niche. It's not only a meeting spot, but one of the last places left downtown to shop for food.
"Anybody who comes to Annapolis seems to find their way here," said Joann Martin, who runs the Mann's Sandwiches stall, one of the first three shops that leased space when the market reopened in 1972.
As they celebrate the market's 20th anniversary today, stall owners are proud that they're continuing a long tradition, dating back to the 1850s, when the place was a farmers' market. Shop owners have invited city officials to a morning feast to commemorate the anniversary, and some stalls will also roll back their prices to 1972 levels.
Etta and Al Kaufman, who have run a successful produce business in the market since the first day it reopened, said the city may have changed over the years, but their faithful customers have not.
At noon, tourists and downtown office workers crowd around the Kaufmans' salad bar, which the couple boasts is the "freshest in town." Older residents still come every day as well, to buy their eggs and onions and banter with the Kaufmans.
"We've developed our regular clientele," Mr. Kaufman said. "People come from a lot of places to shop here. We like to carry a full line of fruits and vegetables, like berries in the winter, for them."
Not far from the water's edge, the property has always been a market, said St. Clair Wright, Annapolis' historian.
In 1784, seven men donated the property to the city to establish a market, she said. The existing marketplace was painstakingly researched and renovated after the place had completely deteriorated in the late 1960s.
"It was a mess," Mrs. Wright said bluntly. "They had extended the walls out, so it was very unattractive. People couldn't really see the original building. We had quite an exciting time back then with the city condemning it."
When the last fish and vegetable stalls were evicted, the city decided to auction off the ramshackle market. Just before it was sold, historic preservationists found a clause in the deed that said the property would return to the family if it wasn't used for a market.
Historic Annapolis Foundation spent three years researching the market's history and restored it almost exactly. The only change, Mrs. Wright said, was adding windows to meet health codes.
The Kaufmans opened their produce stall in the summer of 1972. A few months later, Joseph F. and Carolyn Mann Martin set up "Mann's Sandwiches," followed by the locally famous Machoian Chicken shop, which specializes in fried chicken and oversized french fries.
These days, the market houses everything from an international cheese shop to a bakery and frozen yogurt stand. The mayor has stopped by for breakfast. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a fan of Mann's black-bean soup.
"It's a real community spot," said Mrs. Kaufman. "We have the tourists and local people and the St. John's students. We have a solid core of lunch people from the office buildings and the State House. Everyone comes here."
Even though some residents shop elsewhere to avoid the crowds, the market has really come full circle and become a community hangout again.
"Years ago, everybody went there to shop, to exchange information on the city," said Mrs. Wright.