Every Friday morning during the summertime, a group of senior citizens gather at a booth at the Ventnor Farmer’s Market. They all wear matching traffic-cone-orange shirts with pins that say, “Ask Me For Advice.”
They’re called the Old Coots and Company, and their mission is to listen to people, talk with them, and dole out the finest advice they can — at no cost.
“We just want them to hold people’s hands, figuratively speaking,” said Andrew Starer, who started the market six years ago with his wife, Penni. “You may not be able to solve their problem, but maybe just listening is half the battle.”
The Starers, who manage the market along with Maria Gatta, were inspired to host an advice booth at the farmer’s market after learning about an Old Coots group in Salt Lake City. They wanted to bring the idea to the shore and make sure that women were a part of the group too, since the original group was all men.
The booth “adds an extra dimension to the market, a lightness and another fun factor,” said Penni Starer.
People stop by to ask all sorts of questions — sometimes they’re big quandaries about life, love, and parenting. Other times, people just want to know where the best pizza is.
The Old Coots and Company always do their best.
“What you say to people is meaningful,” said Penni Starer. The booth is about cultivating community and connection. “There might be a level of seriousness to some of the issues that are brought to the table … it is really important that we keep this fun. Keep it light.”
‘It really makes you feel a lot different about this world’
While the advice given differs based on the judgment and experience of each individual, a “Coots Code” must be followed by anyone working at the booth.
All Coots must arrive on time to their shift, be warm and welcoming, stay focused, and avoid chatting with friends and family while at the booth. When it comes to advice, it’s important to talk less, listen more, and impart wisdom in a caring manner to anyone seeking answers. And lastly, send people off with well wishes and positive vibes.
Marsha Galespie has been working at the booth for six years and is familiar with the code. She’s one of the original advice-givers.
“I’m a person that likes to meet people and share things,” she said.
The 79-year-old has talked to many people throughout her years working at the booth. She says she’s offered support to a local man in recovery, who she still keeps in touch with, and a mother wondering if she should have another child.
“We talked to her and years later she came back and told us, ‘Here’s the baby!’” recalled Galespie.
Those small moments of connection are special for the Old Coots.
“It’s kind of fun to see people come in kind of nervous or very bold. I can’t answer all the questions, but I have a team,” said Walter Stuart, 79, who started at the booth this season.
Every ‘Old Coot’ has their own style.
Some, like Galespie and Stuart, sit in the booth and wait for people to come to them. Sidney Stern likes to be more active.
Stern stands outside the booth and tries to strike up a conversation with people passing by. Some smile and keep walking, while others stop to chat. One Friday morning, he managed to connect with Amanda Kohn and her 4-year-old daughter, Monica.
“How you doing?” he asked, before introducing himself and casually making his pitch.
“I’m around 80 years, so I have a lot of things that I’ve gone through in my life, and I will only give good advice. We do not charge, it’s for free,” said Stern.
Kohn didn’t hesitate and immediately asked two questions: “How do I get my two older children to stop fighting? And how do I raise good, polite girls?”
“I have two girls and five granddaughters. Here’s what I can tell you,” said Stern. “My daughters are now in their 50s. They fought like crazy, it broke my heart when they were babies. Today they are so close. It’s unbelievable. It’ll go away,” he promised.
When it comes to raising good kids, Stern said, “You’re probably already raising good children because you have good morals, right?” Kohn humbly said yes and agreed. She appeared comforted by Stern’s words.
The two ended up talking for several minutes about their families and history in the region. Stern even called Kohn’s husband to tell him how “delightful” his wife is. The entire interaction lit up Stern.
“I get a lot more out of it than the people,” said Stern, who is retired and misses the energy of meeting and talking to people like he once did when traveling for work. It’s cathartic to be out and connect with people — especially after watching the news all week and learning about one negative occurrence after the other, he says.
“To walk out here and talk to normal people and have a normal conversation — it really makes you feel a lot different about this world,” said Stern.
“It gives me joy,” said the Old Coot. “You can’t pay for that. You really can’t.”
The Old Coots and Company Giving Advice are at their booth every Friday from 8 a.m. to noon through Labor Day, ready to help anyone who stops by.
There’s just one thing to keep in mind, according to Andrew Starer.
“It may not be the best advice,” Starer said, “but it’s free.”
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