Belair Market represented antiquity and happy times

September 07, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

IT'S ALWAYS a jolt when I miss something that stood in a place for a lifetime. So it was, the other day, while heading off to lunch, that the Belair Market disappeared. It was gone. Where the block-long market building stood is now a freshly tilled vacant lot.

When I say stood, I mean for centuries. There was a market in Oldtown, on Gay Street, for ages. Newspaper articles say the market was founded in 1813. My mother's family, who settled in Baltimore in 1760, acted as if the Belair Market was a venerable institution when they arrived.

Because my mother - and her mother, too - never gave up on anything they liked, I was taken to the Belair Market regularly some 40-plus years ago. It was then a dozing backwater of downtown, not far from the office buildings, but operating in the twilight zone known as Oldtown. The neighborhood was aptly named. It was ancient, unfashionable and known best by locals, in fact, like so much of Baltimore.

On a Saturday morning, the market itself was thriving, full of characters and spontaneity. Here were tenacious business people hanging on to the stalls their grandparents founded. There were equally loyal customers who returned to these vendors they had known as children. It was a very happy marriage of antiquity, fidelity and cheap prices.

This was not the place to go if you wanted anything modern or current. It was the spot where dealers lined up skinned muskrats on a cold winter Saturday for those who wanted to make gamy stews. (As a child, I was utterly grossed out by this sight, but my mother merely told me to get used to the real world.) I can see the old candy dealer, who obviously spent his nights pouring liquid chocolate in molds, then setting out his Santas and bunnies along a glass counter. There was the Greek fellow who sold the oniony hamburgers from a veined marble counter. I think of Bishop Helfenbein and his pork stall, Staph's butter and eggs and Louis Heying's rye bread.

Across the street was Cicero's Bar, spoken about in hushed tones because of its associations with the lawless set. The fine old tower of No. 6 fire house lent a tone of dignity to a neighborhood that had ceased to be fashionable when Baltimore was still lighted by gas and heated by coal. The old Epstein's department store seemed very much a classic 1920s neighborhood bargain house, except this was 1960. My mother, ever the shopper, proclaimed the Shockett's at Gay and Mott streets to be the best in the deep discount chain.

There were still touches of the market's roots to the farmers of Baltimore and Harford counties, who butchered their pigs and sold their vegetables here. Well into the 1970s, there was an agricultural and wholesale seed business, J. Manns & Co., on Forrest Street.

On a fine September Saturday morning, as I head off to the Waverly Farmers' Market, perhaps a kind of descendant of the old Belair Market, I'll think of the old days, when we bought the ingredients for a bountiful Sunday breakfast - a canvas shopping bag, weighed down with a sack of buckwheat flour, yeast and Wetzelberger Brothers' sausage.

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