Berenbaums (Ari Berenbaum, center)
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  • Berenbaum’s (Ari Berenbaum, center)

Berenbaum’s Bakery, which has been setting up its modest table catty-corner to the Durham Farmers’ Market for about two months now, is up to something a little more provocative than just making tasty edibles out of flour and selling them.

The first provocation comes when you fish out your money to pay and are told that your bread, donut, granola, etc. (there’s also coffee) costs whatever you feel like paying. The proprietor, Ari Berenbaum, says that “people like the gambit,” as he calls his fair-price practice.

But it’s more than a mere gambit, and not everyone likes it. Watching customers’ flummoxed reactions to learning that they have some say over what goods cost is a lesson in how narrowly our economy works, how one-sided it is.

What’s bread worth? What’s anything worth?

Those questions are seldom answered by the buyer. Confronted by them, Berenbaum’s patrons tend to “knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute,” as John Updike wrote of shoppers in his wonderful short story “A&P.” Hardly anyone quickly, comfortably and decisively hands over an amount. They ask what Berenbaum’s thinks its product should cost, or what other customers have been paying—anything for guidance. They fumble around with their money as though it’s foreign currency. They shuffle and stammer. It’s eye-opening. It’s wonderful.

Also eye-opening and wonderful was Ari Berenbaum’s reaction to a journalist’s query about writing a little something about his brand new, presumably eager-for-attention business: No, thanks. Berenbaum’s reasoning? The foodie world is cutthroat. Too much attention too soon could be damaging.

Berenbaum’s refusal softened, after some informal chatting, to wait-a-bit, and he suggested a visit to, a self-described “blog about a data-driven, open-sourced, sliding-scale food concept.” It contains compelling, accessible theory behind Berenbaum’s unusual practices. (It also contains a mention of one of the great iconoclast restaurateurs of all time, Kenny Shopsin. Read this. Buy Kenny Shopsin’s cookbook, called Eat Me. Be glad.)

Read through Berenbaum’s blog posts—direct, plainspoken, funny and thoughtful—and you get a sense of where he’s coming from, both in the kitchen and in the market. A former employee of Ninth Street Bakery, where he bakes Berenbaum’s goods, he started out bartering with Durham Farmers’ Market vendors. Even now, his rotating crew of friendly “employees” work for food and fun.

Berenbaum’s blog often discusses money and trade, and he exposes something that the Durham foodie orthodoxy tends to keep mum about: Retailers and restaurants playing the locavore card are usually quite expensive. (He calls Scratch Bakery’s chocolate sea salt crostata “delicious,” but wonders if it needs to cost $5.) That’s especially true of the locavore kingpin, the Durham Farmers’ Market itself—which, he writes, rebuffed his application for entry, even when all he wanted was the temporarily vacant slot of another vendor who takes winters off. After he set up on the northeast corner of Foster and Hunt, he was chased further away from the market pavilion, to the southeast corner.

Berenbaum also observes that the clientele at the Durham Farmers’ Market is overwhelmingly white, an issue of both race and class. He’s skeptical about the upcoming Durham Central Market’s planned size, 10,000 feet: The $4.2 million price tag attached to such a big store forces DCM into an ecologically unfriendly, less neighborly “car-centric” model. And he doesn’t hold himself apart from the problems he writes about, interrogating his own consumer habits. He ends a post about a day of eating and shopping in Carrboro wondering, “Is this what living in a vibrant, intellectual, liberal economy is all about? The ability to buy a bunch of tasteful, responsibly-sourced crap from 8 or 10 sellers in a population-dense, walkable small town?”

Berenbaum is, in his unassuming, musing way, a necessary iconoclast. Granted, he can afford it. He has a day job at Duke. He probably doesn’t need to pay his mortgage and feed his kids with the earnings from his product, as many local restaurateurs and retailers do. He is in a luxurious position for selling luxury goods. Doubtless he knows this. So he’s using the position to encourage his customers to think a little more about the nature of the exchange of money and goods.

The price of gas keeps going up, nearing $4/gallon now. Nothing you can do about it. Couldn’t get a mortgage during the housing crisis? Nothing you could do about that, either. You’re a local buyer mostly subject to global market forces. Berenbaum’s little stand is saying, in its own off-market way, that local vendors can give locals the opportunity to dictate the terms of their local lives. Stop by and introduce yourself some Saturday. It’s free.