The Reading Terminal Market

Addie Delph

Be prepared for war and peace. Intoxicating aromas, mouth-watering flavors, bursting colors, and concerts of shouts and melodies guarantee an invigorating war of the senses. Despite these conflicts, and some other historical clashes, the Reading Terminal Market guarantees comfort to residents and visitors in the City of Brotherly Love.

Every week, thousands pour into the corner of Philadelphia’s 12th and Arch Street. Filling the space above the old Reading train station are over 80 vendors of breads, beverages, flowers, meats, seafood, crafts, and books. Eyes dart between the out-of-the-oven crispy croissants and enticing ethnic entities.

“Honey, would you like a cookie?” a husband asks his wife. An almost visible internal debate between the image of melted chocolate and her stomach commences.

“I’m so full,” she sighs. But, the tempting scent wins. “Ok, I can do it.”

Similar debates erupt inside the diverse customers who fill the eateries. The market serves the minds and stomachs of every religion, race, and economic level. Some scurry through for their daily groceries, some take a lunch break from their business jobs, and some are visitors from foreign lands. Each comes to experience the intrigue of the country’s oldest public farmer’s market. And this variety of people that makes up a great part of its allure.

“I work here because of the people,” says Charita Powell, owner of Amazula, an African jewelry stand. “There is so much diversity here. They come from all over the world. There is really no place like the Reading Terminal.”

The Market has served customers since the city’s development in the late 17th century. When William Penn established Philadelphia, he made efforts to herd crowds together with markets. In 1859, open-air street markets were banned due to disease and two indoor markets sprung up in Center City. These two markets merged in 1892, establishing the Reading Terminal Market above the Reading Terminal train station.

This bustling mercantile atmosphere puts down roots in people’s hearts. Three of the original vendors still call the Reading Terminal their home.

“I’ve been here 26 years and have no intention of moving,” says Powell. “It really is the best place to sell your stuff.”

Another long-time vendor shared this viewpoint. However, when the management decided to modernize leases to make the Market more competitive, a third-generation vendor of the royal cheeseteak, Rick Olivieri of Rick’s Steaks, had to leave. The hands that filled soft Italian rolls with cheesesteaks for celebrities like Bill Cobsy and Al Roker gave up in 2008. A heated debate led Olivieri to sue the Market and, after losing, he was ordered to take a bow and vacate.

The Amish have maintained their presence at the Market for decades, making an early pilgrimage to from the farms of Lancaster County. Their white clad heads and modest clothing set them apart from the metropolitan crowd. However, what really draws attention is the wafting smell of their soft buttered pretzels and sticky buns. The northwest corner of the Market is devoted to the Amish’s homemade baked goods.

Despite the long-time purveyance of sweetness, the 1930s brought tough times to the Market. The Depression hit both the Market and the railroad hard. Though it struggled, the Market proved it could sustain rationing during World War II. Customers were loyal and 97 percent of the stalls remained occupied. However, in1960s, the market suffered as the economy again struggled.

In 1971, the chugging trains that sped through the urban Reading Terminal came to a halt. The railroad hit bankruptcy. The Market suffered and was near collapsing. The decline of passenger traffic led to a rerouting of schedules and a cancellation of trips.

A burst of hope surfaced when the Reading Company, a new real estate business, emerged with the Market as its prime asset. In the 1980s, the Reading Company’s attention allowed the Market to experience a dramatic turnaround. The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority acquisition of the entranceway initiated the Market revitalization of the Market in the 1990s.

As our country approaches the 17th month of a recession, a loss of income is on the mind of all the Market’s vendors. Wan, a Koran immigrant and owner of Wan’s Seafood, is experiencing the effects of the economic downturn. After six years at the Market, he has seen a drastic drop in sales.


Addie Delph

Wan’s Seafood Market, a vendor suffering form the recession.

“I’ve definitely seen profit go down,” he explains after pausing to form his English words. “I try and get the cheapest prices from the wholesale markets in South Philly. But every day prices from the fisherman change. “

Other vendors, such as the Iovine Brother’s Produce, are keeping customers with their promisingly low prices. A corner of the market is dedicated to their aisles of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Rustling through a large crate of vivid red apples is Michel Weinfraur, a local Philadelphian who comes to the Market every Sunday to buy produce.

“I buy everything here – the fruits and vegetables are just so good,” she says as she gets distracted by a crate of sunny lemons. “I haven’t seen any change in the customers. It’s really cheap and convenient.”


Addie Delph

Fresh Asian pears and yellow tomatoes from Iovine’s Brothers.

Behind the scenes, the workers at Iovine’s are just as enthusiastic about their healthy array. Elijah, 16, packages and prices tomatoes the size of softballs into plastic wrapping. For almost two years he has spent his weekends and afternoons carrying and packaging the daily produce. Damon, his fellow employee, quietly nods at Elijah’s comments. Despite his shyness, Damon makes sure to tell me his name and that he is the one who packages the thrifty $1.00 grab bags.

After picking up a full bag of green and red grapes from the dollar stand, the young Asian cashier explains in broken English that I get 10 percent off if I’m a student. I walk away popping my 90 cent bag delicious, crisp grapes into my mouth.

Other vendors say their items are unique, keeping customers around despite the rough economy. The market provides the essentials, but most of all, it provides an experience.

Adding to the experience are cooking lessons, musical events, and of course, in true Philadelphia form, competition. In 2007, a “throw down” cooking challenge occurred between Food Network’s star, Bobby Flay, and Market vendor legend, Chef Delilah Winder. Customers rave over Delilah’s crispy southern fried chicken, collard greens, and candied yams. However, she is famous for being the queen of Mac ‘n’ Cheese – voted the best in the nation by Oprah.

Despite all this lively bustle of humanity, there still exist calm waters in the enclaves of the sit-down eateries. The soothing sounds of a classical West Side Story rendition exude from a worn piano behind a meat shop.

A man in his 60s sits at a piano surrounded by little tables of listeners. His tan argyle sweater vest matches his ironed khakis. His eyes, hidden behind large Coke bottle glasses, focus on the keys. He occasionally looks up and smiles at those walking by, warming hearts with his easy demeanor and harmonious melodies.

“You have any requests?” he asks a young couple sharing a baguette and chocolate spread. The lady responds, “Elton John.”

“I think all I know are the ones from before your time,” he says smiling.

He ponders and then dives back into the keys, playing a song he says was written in 1937 – “ten years before I was born.” He’s been playing to the customers of the Market for about 10 years every Friday and Sunday afternoon. After each song, like a grandfather speaking to his children, he tells people sitting close the name and year it was written.

A well-dressed white man in reading a newspaper enjoying the soothing tunes is approached by a middle-aged black man with dreadlocks in a shabby Adidas sweatshirt.

“Where did you get that from?” the black man asks the older man, pointing to a sandwich.

“It was only four bucks!” the older man states with enjoyment. “You got to go get one.”

He proceeds to take a $10 bill out of his pocket and hand it to the complete stranger who resembles a rapper. The stranger smiles, thanking him in Ebonic slang, then returns to the table a few minutes later with an identical sandwich. They begin to share stories of their families and pastimes – purely enjoying a Sunday afternoon of good food and company.