Super Markets

In an era of retail giants and gourmet groceries, Baltimore's markets still are the place to meet and eat.


Bill Blueford may be the oldest fixture in Cross Street Market.

When it reopened two weeks ago after a $1.3 million renovation, the market in Federal Hill looked like a spit-polished shoe. There were new floors, a new brick facade, decorative shutters and improved lighting.

Amid the glow of this promising urban renewal was Blueford, 89, sitting in Big Jim's Deli, enjoying a cup of coffee. Watching old friends and new urbanites filter through the market over the lip of his Styrofoam cup, Blueford symbolizes the story of Baltimore's markets, a story of tradition meeting technology and history competing with convenience.

Blueford comes to the market most mornings from his condominium at Harbor Court to meet people and socialize with the stall holders. The South Baltimore native has been coming to the market almost every day for the last 50 years.

"It's part of me, you might say, because I've lived here my whole life," he says. "Of course, today things have changed. The ladies used to come down on Saturday to do their shopping. Now I guess their children take them to the outlying areas to the supermarkets that didn't exist back then."

In an era when big-box chains are gobbling up small businesses like so many minnows, Baltimore's markets are one of the last bastions of family enterprise. Some market tenants have been in business for generations. At Lexington Market, there's Faidley's Seafood, founded in 1886 and still serving phenomenal crab cakes, and Mary Mervis Delicatessen, which has been providing hefty corned-beef sandwiches since 1913. Nunnally Brothers Choice Meats, one of the 23 vendors at Cross Street Market, has been in business for 130 years.

Tommy Chagouris grew up in the market system. His father, Nick, began Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in Cross Street Market in 1971, yet the family's history with hucksters stretches further back.

Chagouris has grown Nick's into a mini empire, but there's still a picture hanging behind the counter of the family's first fish stall at Lexington Market, taken in the 1930s when Chagouris' grandparents arrived here from Greece. "To say I love the market is putting it mildly," says Chagouris. "When it gets in your blood, you can't shake it."

Baltimore's markets survive, or most of them have, and remain what they were at the beginning - a hub of community life. Whether they can survive in the new century may depend on what they've learned from their history, one interlaced with the stories of immigrant communities.

Baltimore boasts the oldest continually operating public market system in the United States. The city built its first market at Gay and Baltimore streets in 1763, with funds collected from a public lottery. By 1773 the markets were a regulated business.

The first markets were built near Baltimore's population centers and commerce activities. Broadway Market in Fells Point was established in 1784 to support the bustling waterfront community. Lexington Market was established on the west side in 1783 as a simple farmers' market. At its apex, the city market system featured 11 markets, each serving a segment of the city and catering to that population.

"They were the forerunners of supermarkets where people bought produce, meat, fish, you name it," says Erik Gordon, a professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins University's Graduate Division of Business and Management. "Like a supermarket, it was a convenience for urban buyers in the same way a shopping center is for suburban buyers. It's a place where you can go to one place, walk around generally inside or at least under something covered, and pick up most of what you need, at least in the early days, for a couple of days' worth of eating at home."

The markets were always a microcosm of the neighborhoods they served, says Casper Genco, executive director of Lexington Market Inc. and the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which oversees the city's markets. "The public market system has always been an immigrant market system with small entrepreneurs coming in and opening businesses in a public market forum," he says.

Genco says that when Lexington Market opened, its businesses catered to mostly European immigrants arriving from countries such as Germany, Poland and Italy. Although many of those businesses are still in the market today, often run by descendants of the original stall holder, they share space with a new wave of immigrants.

"The markets are constantly going through an evolutionary process where they change and adapt to serve the neighborhood," says Genco. "Now, if you look at some of the markets, they have a significant number of Asians in them. It's always been a system whereby small businesses and entrepreneurs have come and developed their trade and successfully maintained a business while raising a family."

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