Anne Saxelby Was a Tireless Advocate for the Essex Street Market

photo by The Lo-Down

In the past week, there have been many tributes to Anne Saxelby, the trailblazing cheesemonger who died far too young October 9 at the age of 40. Saxelby, who opened a tiny stall in the Essex Street Market in 2006, was instrumental in changing perceptions about fine American cheeses. But she also made a huge impact on the Lower East Side by helping to sustain the historic market during some very tough years and by setting a foundation for her fellow vendors to succeed in the new Essex Market, which opened in 2019.

Saxelby Cheesmongers did not make the move to the new market, but her influence in the sprawling space across from the original market building can be felt today.

Starting in 2011, Saxelby began to use some of her clout in New York’s food world, raising her voice in support of keeping the 1940s-era building rather than demolishing it and moving the market to a new facility in the Essex Crossing mega-complex.

In a passionate plea back then, Saxelby said that moving the market would cause it to, “lose its historic context,” and “lose the soul and spirit of the place.” The Essex Street Market and a few other markets built in the same era, she argued, “harken(ed) back to a time when the city built public markets to uphold communities.” In more recent times, Saxelby, added, the market had evolved, with new vendors moving in alongside older ones, but through it all, the Essex Street Market remained, “a bastion of community, full of vibrant unique small businesses serving the needs of a diverse clientele.”

Essex Street Market Block Party, 2015.

The battle to save the building was a lonely and ultimately unsuccessful one. The move to a larger, brighter and modernized facility may very well have strengthened many of the longtime vendors and sustained the market for a new generation (time will tell). After the city prevailed, Saxelby could have given up on the market, but instead, she continued to advocate for the merchants and for the market.

She went on to lead the Essex Street Market Vendor Association, and often in very blunt fashion criticized the neglectful management of the market by the city administration. During a period in which several vendors closed their stalls as foot traffic in the market dwindled, Saxelby called for stepped up marketing programs and more responsive day-to-day management of the facility. At a community board meeting in 2015, Saxelby said, “It would be a disaster to continue with the status quo and move (to the new Essex Market across the street) with a market that is for all intents and purposes half dead.”

Saxelby, along with other local stakeholders, opened a dialogue with city officials, won concessions that helped the vendors survive their last months in the old building. Just as important, she was a major player in negotiations to ensure vendor protections in the new market building.

Benoit Breal & Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheese. May 2015.

In September of 2018, just a few month before the big move, Saxelby made the difficult decision to close her stall and opt out of the new market. She said it was a business decision and that she and her partner, Benoit Breal, concluded that opening in the new space could jeopardize the future of Saxelby Cheesemongers. She concluded by saying, “The community of friends, neighbors and customers is unlike any other in New York, and it has been amazing to be part of this community. The Essex Market was, is and will continue to be an amazing, historic, one-of-a-kind destination in New York City, and I wish the new market nothing but the greatest success.”

The vendors and the larger Lower East Side community obviously appreciate everything Saxelby meant to the market. In an Instagram post, the owners of Shopsin’s (Saxelby’s next door neighbor in the old market) wrote, “Anne, we love you. We followed you to the Essex Market and we would’ve followed you anywhere.”

Family and friends of Anne Saxelby have established the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund to provide training opportunities to financially distressed teenagers and young adults. Please click here for more information.