John Gambrill, 89, operated Lafayette Market produce stall

November 16, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Everyone knew when John Gambrill's stall at the Lafayette Market was open: His deep, booming voice would echo through the market, and shoppers would gather around the cantaloupes, bananas, tomatoes and collard greens at his stall.

Mr. Gambrill, 89, a West Baltimore resident and owner of the popular John Gambrill's Produce stall at the market, died Tuesdayof heart failure at Bons Secours Hospital.

Mr. Gambrill worked at the Upton landmark on Pennsylvania Avenue from the 1930s through the 1950s and was remembered as one of its more lively merchants.

His voice and hearty laugh were unmistakable -- and nearly nonstop. And his stall, near the center of the market, was as much a social hub as it was a place to get a good deal on strawberries and Silver Queen corn.

"He was a vendor and a gentleman," said Wilton Spellman, a friend and former merchant at the market. "He brought people into the market for reasons other than shopping. Once they were here, they bought things. He'd cut a deal with some people or let them pay on credit. He was a community merchant because he cared about the community."

In addition to the Lafayette Market stall, Mr. Gambrill operated a produce stand at Hollins Market for many years and sold his goods from the bed of his truck on city streets, said his daughter, Estella Gambrill of Baltimore.

"He was always a people person who made people laugh and enjoyed being around people a lot," Ms. Gambrill said. "He also enjoyed being independent."

Mr. Gambrill frequently hired neighborhood youths to run errands and keep the area clean, friends said. He paid them with fruit or produce and told them to take the produce home to their parents.

"They never did [take the food home]. A couple, three minutes later, you'd see them eating a banana or chomping down a cucumber," Mr. Spellman said. "But his [Mr. Gambrill] idea was to help out a family that he thought needed some help."

A native of Baltimore, Mr. Gambrill graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1928 and attended Howard University in Washington. He married Viola Marie Johnson in 1934.

After Mr. Gambrill left the market business, he was a stationary engineer for the Baltimore Housing Authority. He retired in 1974. In his retirement, Mr. Gambrill was competitive in duckpin bowling and won several contests.

But many people remember Mr. Gambrill from his Lafayette Market days. Relatives and friends said he took meticulous care of his stand and worked long hours. After hours, he was known to make grape juice or wine from grapes that he didn't sell.

"He brought a lot of life to that market," said Randolph Brock, a West Baltimore resident and longtime Lafayette Market patron. "He sold a lot of food and told a lot of jokes and met a lot of people."

Services were yesterday.

Other survivors include a son, Dr. John Gambrill Jr.; two daughters, Viola Jeanne Lewis and Estella Gambrill; two brothers, Ernest Gambrill and Theodore Gambrill; five grandchildren; and two great grandchildren. All are of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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