USC students might be living life differently than they did in 2019, but at least Columbia’s Saturday morning staple remains intact — Soda City Market.
With new rules to keep everyone safe, customers can get back to shopping and vendors can make their livelihood.
USC alumna Tashana Jamison landed on a problem she wanted to solve when she noticed that college girls didn't seem to have a cute purse to hold their belongings in at tailgates. She started Carolina Clutches in 2015, and Jamison has worked as owner, designer and seamstress full time since 2018.
Now an evergreen vendor, or someone who consistently sets up shop, Jamison has been coming to Soda City since 2016.
“Soda City was crucial for me growing my market here in Columbia because before me going to Soda City, no one knew about me,” Jamison said.
While Jamison found her muse in Columbia, another Soda City vendor, Shana Bertetto, had inspiration strike in South America, where she decided to travel after she graduated from USC.
While she was there, the locals taught her a jewelry technique called micro-macramé. The technique uses South American gemstones and wax-coated strings from Brazil. Bertetto ties thousands of tiny knots to make each piece.
She started her own company, Hermana Luna Jewelry, in 2016. Bertetto spends half the year in Columbia and lives in Peru, making jewelry with her partner, Víctor Manrique, the other half of the time.
“[Our jewelry] was really well received, our stuff, 'cause our style's pretty unique,” Bertetto said. “The Soda City Market is just so cool. It really resembles street markets in other countries, you know; it's super diverse, and the energy's so high.”
Like Jamison’s business, the idea for Artisan Tees came when one of its owners, Andy Natusch, wanted to solve a problem.
His wife, Jessie, said he "loved graphic T-shirts" but thought good quality graphic tees were hard to find — his shirts would wear down after barely being worn. He started Artisan Tees in 2011 with the goal of producing better quality shirts, while helping sustain the environment, through the use of "water-based, eco-friendly ink" in all of his products. The company also plants a tree for every website sale.
Jessie Natusch joined Artisan Tees full time about three years ago. The business has been an evergreen vendor at Soda City for nearly eight years, she said. They also set up shop most Sundays at Charleston’s Sunday Brunch Farmers Market.
Each of these vendors said they love different aspects of Soda City, and they all agree the people are what make it special.
From a business perspective, the largeness of Soda City and its ability to attract customers is a draw for vendors.
“I found that Soda City has such an influx of people,” Jamison said. “It was just neat to see that all these people would … come to Soda City just to shop and see the local handmade vendors that were there.”
Its size also gives vendors the chance to make friends. Natusch said it's "a nice community."
“Farmers markets … just bring out the best people,” Natusch said. “The other vendors usually just become like family. You see them every week and you talk about your whole life and you get really close.”
Bertetto said she loves the diversity of Soda City and the conversations that come with meeting different people. One of her favorite topics to tell others about is her partner, who is unable to travel to the United States.
“That's really, also, a nice dialogue to have about immigration; just realizing how hard it is for, you know, just regular people from poorer countries to come to the U.S.,” Bertetto said. “I see people admiring his jewelry and buying it, and I send him money, so I'm able to support him.”
The recent global challenge of COVID-19 caused Jamison to pivot her business from producing handbags and accessories to producing masks. At the beginning of the pandemic, one of Jamison’s customers asked her to make a face mask she could wear while traveling. After it was a success, she said she realized she was “ahead of the game” and got to work.
Jamison said establishing a market base at Soda City allowed her to prove her business to Columbia locals. Now, people all over the country are aware of her work.
Hollywood actress Meagan Good found out about Carolina Clutches in April. She posted a tagged video of her wearing an animal print mask, which drew more than 775,000 views.
Jamison gained thousands of followers and was able to hire her mother and two other employees to help her make face masks. She said she is looking to hire a student intern, too.
While Carolina Clutches flourished during lockdown, the owners of Hermana Luna Jewelry and Artisan Tees said they believe there isn’t a replacement for market days.
“[Markets] are kind of our bread and butter,” Natusch said. “I think when people can just see the shirts in person and can touch them, they just sell so well that way.”
Soda City implemented several safety measures to ensure people can shop while staying healthy. In accordance with Columbia's policy, all vendors and customers are required to wear face masks and maintain social distance.
Additionally, Soda City posted a public safety plan that outlines new guidelines, such as extra staff, alternating booth spacing and temporarily stopping busking and street entertainment. All vendors also signed the Resilient Columbia pledge, which is a commitment to helping reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
In addition to following these guidelines, Jamison, Bertetto and the Natuschs provide hand sanitizer for customers that want to touch any of their items.
“As a business owner, if we aren't healthy, we cannot operate,” Jamison said. “I just pray that the customers that I have ... are very intentional and careful about protecting themselves as much as they are about me. You understand? It's just kind of having that mutual respect.”