Changing times, new hours

Market: Declining business forces Cross Street's merchants to close earlier each night.

January 02, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Merchants at the Cross Street Market -- South Baltimore's horn of plenty of meats, fish and vegetables since the 1840s -- have voted to close the market's retail operation an hour earlier each night -- a decision based in part on changing times and declining business.

Despite a decades-long influx of increasingly well-heeled residents to the Inner Harbor and nearby Federal Hill, vacant stalls dot the market for the first time in memory. And merchants, noting falling business, have voted to cut market hours, starting today.

The only exception will be Nick's, a bar serving seafood at the western end of the market, which will stay open later.

The decision to close at 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, an hour earlier, has divided South Baltimore's business community, which has been trying for years to revitalize the Light and Charles street retail districts.

Jules "Sonny" Morstein, a veteran Light Street jeweler and a leader in several business organizations, said the stall operators' decision ran counter to all recent market surveys.

"I hope they'll revisit their decision," he said, adding that surveys showed that the market, instead of curtailing the hours, should extend them to evenings and Sundays.

Tommy Chagouris, an owner of the market's biggest store, Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood, agreed.

"The market should be open later," said Chagouris, who is the only market merchant able to stay open until 10 p.m. weekends and also operate on Sundays because his business occupies space on the end. "Shoppers who used to shop during the day have passed away. We are dealing with a new generation."

But Steve Bongiovani -- president of the 24-member stall operators group, the Cross Street Market Merchants Association -- said evening shoppers had not materialized.

"The hours are long enough," he said, even with the earlier closing time.

For Bongiovani, 47, they surely are. He said he often gets up at 4:30 a.m. to visit fruit and vegetable wholesalers in Jessup before Cross Street Market's 7 a.m. opening. By closing time, he is drained.

Robert Santoni, a board member on the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which operates the market, said the stall operators are free to decide their hours. But he said they were misguided because "there are no 9-to-5 jobs anymore."

"When you are in business, you must be there when the customers need you and not when you feel like you want to be there," said Tony Green, who moved his cheese and wine store from the market to Light Street. At the new location, he sells more prepared foods and operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

He said evening shoppers at the store, A Cook's Table, outnumber daytime patrons and include many young, affluent residents of Federal Hill.

Sheldon Zayon, who moved Cross Street Tobacco from the market to Light Street, keeps his store open until 10 p.m. Fridays and added Sunday hours.

Cross Street Market's problems illustrate the complexities of South Baltimore, where hordes of professionals have steadily elbowed out established blue-collar families over the past two decades, turning modest brick homes into expensive showpieces.

This wave of gentrification, which once centered on Federal Hill, is spreading to the fringes. A prime example is the Hanover Street corridor, where a number of buildings are being rehabbed.

Although Federal Hill has a growing number of eclectic restaurants and trendy bars, numerous vacant storefronts on Light Street illustrate the problems of other types of retailers. A Rite Aid drugstore went out of business two years ago across from Cross Street Market.

Several years ago, the Baltimore Public Markets Corp. started planning exterior improvements for Cross Street Market's 52-year-old building. But a failed proposal to add a second floor for a gourmet store delayed the construction, which is scheduled for this year.

"I hope it doesn't come too late," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., an area resident who often eats lunch at the market.

South Baltimore retailers say Cross Street Market's business took a noticeable dip two years ago after a Whole Foods Market, an upscale grocery store, opened in Inner Harbor East. That store, less than two miles away, stays open until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sundays.

Cross Street Market might soon face another challenge. Nick's, its biggest merchant, is about to open a major seafood restaurant a mile away, at the foot of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Chagouris said Nick's will stay at Cross Street Market even after Nick's Fish House opens next month. Nevertheless, that branching out is "another question mark" for Cross Street Market, said Bongiovani, the stall operators' president.

The Bongiovanis have been part of Cross Street Market since 1920, when his grandfather, who emigrated from Italy, opened a stand there.

When the wooden structure of Cross Street Market burned to the ground in 1951, the senior Bongiovani bought a discarded transit bus, and sold fruits and vegetables from there until the market was rebuilt.

Today, "we are like a roller coaster," Steve Bongiovani said.

He said he is trying to persuade his 24-year-old son, Shane, a graduate of what now is McDaniel College, to take over the family business.

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