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What Makes Reading Terminal Market So Special to Philadelphians?

Open for over 120 years, it’s as vibrant as it has ever been—and a magnet for every kind of local.

Christopher Maier

On a cold Friday in February, Bobbi, a 74-year-old woman from Norristown, Pennsylvania, finds a quiet place to sit along the fringes of the main seating area at Reading Terminal Market in the heart of Philadelphia. She doesn’t have much going on, which is fine by her. She wears an easy smile and her eyes beam with curiosity as her gaze pans slowly across the expanse of tables, merchant stalls, and flow of patrons ambling through the aisles. 

The market is a familiar place to Bobbi, who’s been coming here since she was young. She, her sister, and her mother used to stroll through the market together for hours, gradually weighing down their arms with bags of groceries as they went. These days, she often comes to the market alone or, occasionally, with her granddaughter, Tiara.

“I just come and look,” she says. “I like the people.”

But it’s not just the people-watching that draws her in. She often chats with familiar faces and even strikes up conversations with strangers—especially when she’s sitting at the bank of communal tables at the center of the market. And Reading Terminal remains her go-to destination when she needs to re-stock the fridge. “I like the food,” she says. “I like the cheeses. And I can get everything I want.”

Given all that Reading Terminal has to offer, she’s happy to take the 45-minute train ride from Norristown to Center City Philadelphia several times a week. Once at the market, she typically sticks around for four or five hours at a time. And when she’s run out of steam, she simply walks a block to 11th Street Station and boards the train back to home. She knows she’ll be back at the market again soon enough.

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For more than 120 years, Reading Terminal Market has been a staple of Center City Philadelphia. But not all of those years have been glorious. After enjoying remarkable success in its salad days, the market hit hard times again and again. By the 1970s, the market had fallen into full-blown disrepair. Only 20 percent of the vendor stalls were occupied. The marketplace lacked air conditioning. The city was threatening to raze the place. Reading Terminal’s marketing manager, Sarah Levitsky, recounts a story from the market’s history involving big, blue tarps draped from the ceiling to stop rainwater from coming straight into the building and soaking the few vendors and patrons still left. “You didn’t want to be unlucky enough to walk underneath one of those tarps when it gave way,” she says. 

Given the market’s deteriorating state, demolition seemed like a reasonable option. But city residents weren’t having it. Many Philadelphians cherished Reading Terminal Market, which sat just a few blocks from City Hall and contributed to the unique fabric of the urban center. The market’s owner—the Reading Company—recognized the value, too. In 1980, emerging from a period of financial instability and buoyed by the community support for the market, the Reading Company began to reinvest in the market’s infrastructure. Three years later, vendor occupancy had jumped to 60 percent.

(Christopher Maier)

Today, filling the stalls isn’t an issue. Instead, says Anuj Gupta, the market’s general manager, the trick is deciding which new merchant to pull from the long wait list when a space does become available. Gupta hopes that the next generation of merchants continue the market’s focus on food but do it in a way that introduces new, engaging experiences to the space. He speaks enthusiastically about Condiment, a 2016 addition to the market, that prepares customized toppings, dips, and marinades onsite based on what customers have in their shopping bags—a concept-driven business that, he says, lets all of the market’s visitors affordably enhance the meals they make at home. Similarly, a state-of-the-art test kitchen allows people to participate in the art of cooking; the glass walls surrounding the kitchen allow shoppers to pause to watch the action inside and, often, to turn to the stranger beside them to comment on what’s happening on the countertop.

“We have an experience to sell,” says Gupta. And as a marketplace that has historically accommodated a broad swath of Philadelphians, he aims to make sure that the market continues to serve basic needs (like picking up groceries) and welcome all comers, even as the experience itself becomes more nuanced and modern.

But not too modern, adds Levitsky. “We’re sort of old-world shopping,” she says—and in her tone, it’s clear that this is a point of pride.

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“Aw, I love that place,” says Stephen, as he pulls away from Reading Terminal Market in his run-down Ford Explorer. Stephen drives for Uber and he’s carrying a passenger from the market to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. “I go as often as I can,” he says.

Stephen’s lived most of his life in West Philly, on the other side of the Schuylkill River from Center City. Though the market’s never been part of his own daily routine, he says it’s one of the most quintessential “Philadelphia places” that spring to mind. That’s in part, he says, because of all the unique regional cuisine like Amish baked goods and scrapple.

When he and his wife were married, they had a candy shop at Reading Terminal provide sweets for the reception. “You can’t really find that kind of old-timey candy anywhere else,” he says.

This emphasis on authentic regional cuisine and culture is something referenced often by Reading Terminal Market’s champions. This is no cookie-cutter market, they suggest. You couldn’t find this place—or its offerings—anywhere else. It’s a Philadelphia institution and it reflects the many tastes and faces that make Philadelphia one-of-a-kind.

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History is everywhere at Reading Terminal Market. It’s on the walls: In the Rick Nichols Room—a sometimes meeting room/sometimes dining area along the market’s eastern edge—info-heavy posters chart Reading Terminal’s long story. It’s in the stalls: The wooden, flat-bed wagon that artist Marilyn McGregor uses as her shopfront dates back 110 years to the original Reading Terminal Market. It’s among the conversations: Ask somebody who works here about the place and before long you’ll probably learn that Reading Terminal Market is one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the U.S.

The ubiquity of this historical mélange provides a common thread that draws many of the market’s stakeholders together. Each person seems to know some part of the story and seems to take pride in keeping the narrative alive.

History, then, is also a feature of the community itself. And it’s this sense of history and connection that’s one of the great unifiers at Reading Terminal Market—tying together the people who own the businesses, work at the businesses, and patronize the businesses.

Jimmy and Vinnie Iovine, who operate a produce market and a beer garden inside Reading Terminal, embody this. The unassuming brothers love to talk about the market from all sides, including history, business, customers, and family ties. Most of all, they love to talk about the community.

“This is not our market,” says Vinnie. He pans his eyes across nearby aisles full of shoppers. “It’s their market.”

As they begin to discuss plans to institute a customer-service training program for all new market employees (they’re part of the leadership team that oversees the market’s merchants), Jimmy notices a woman looking a little lost. His attention immediately diverts from the conversation to see if he can help the woman. When he realizes she’s looking for the restroom, he begins walking her in the right direction. This sense of concern and community is apparent among many of the people in leadership positions at Reading Terminal.

A moment later, Tootsie Iovine-D’Ambrosia stops by. She’s Vinnie and Jimmy’s sister and owns Tootsie’s Salad Express, a buffet eatery at the market. (In total, 17 members of the Iovine family work at Reading Terminal Market.) Tootsie picks up quickly on the theme of community: “I have hundreds of customers I see every day,” she says, probably only slightly exaggerating. “I know I gotta look for Jackie and Randall. I gotta find Joan and her husband.”  She talks about the time she nearly moved her family in with relatives so that customers who’d hit hard times could live in her house for a year or so till they got their lives back in order.

As the Iovines exemplify, brief interactions at Reading Terminal Market quickly turn into conversations, and out of conversation grows a tangible sense of empathy among people of all backgrounds.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us,” writes essayist Leslie Jamison, explaining that it’s “a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” If this is the case, the Iovines—like so many of Reading Terminal Markets’ stakeholders—are choosing empathy in the extreme. And the result is a welcoming environment where all comers—from the young to the old, from the hard up to the well-to-do, from a vast swath of racial, religious, and geographic backgrounds—are treated like family.

“[The market] becomes everybody’s neighborhood,” says Jimmy. “And anybody’s neighborhood.”

                                                              ****

Who comes to a place like Reading Terminal Market—a public space with very real commercial ambitions and economic imperatives—depends in large part on who feels they can afford to shop there. The staff at the market takes pride in ensuring that there are options open to all economic levels.

You can see this commitment in the programming. For instance, the market’s test kitchen offers private and public events, as well as glass walls that allow all passersby easy opportunities to observe what’s happening, even during paid events.

The dedication to drawing in a wide population is apparent, too, in the widespread practice among market merchants of accepting food stamps. In fact, Reading Terminal Market is the largest SNAP accepter in Philadelphia.

And there’s a sense of openness that comes with the location of the market—in the center of the city, confined within no single neighborhood and steps away from bus and rail transit options that carry customers to and from nearly anywhere in the greater metro area.

                                                                ****

About three or four afternoons a week, Joe, a 67-year-old retired professor, rides the Broad Street Line to within a few blocks of Reading Terminal Market and then walks over. He usually spends an hour or two in the market, eating an early dinner (and, when he can’t resist, a piece of shoefly pie from Beiler’s Bakery for dessert) before catching a bus to the city’s main library.

Joe’s a rotund man who doesn’t try to hide his affection for the culinary smorgasbord that the market serves up. Name a cuisine and he has a recommendation for you.

But it’s not just the food that draws Joe to Reading Terminal; it’s the people, too. He often sees former students or ends up chatting with strangers seated nearby. And even when he doesn’t end up in conversation with anyone, he’s buoyed by all the fascinating folks around him.

“There’s always an interesting collection of people,” he says. “And it varies.” For instance, summertime brings the tourists. Plenty of days see a cast of conventioneers rotating through. And plenty of other days, it’s just a panoply of Philadelphians doing their thing—not unlike Joe himself.

                                                                ****

There’s no single bucket that contains all the people who make their way through Reading Terminal Market. On the barstools at Beck’s (a Cajun café), a group of thirtysomething men—black, white, and Hispanic—line the counter, their work boots and coveralls lacquered in grime. Around the corner, at some tables in front of a German-inspired stall called Wursthaus, sit three black women in their 60s, casually dressed, chatting with a black man about the same age, with a tweed hat and a long, wool dress coat. Three uniformed cops plop down at a table near Molly Malloy’s, the bar owned by the Iovine Brothers. A middle-aged Amish woman in a bright pink dress strolls alone through the market chatting on her mobile phone.

Whoever they are, the people at the market interact in the most basic sense: they move through and settle into the space with patience, courtesy, and often a smile or a quick greeting. People standing in long lines at Beiler’s Donuts or the Dutch Eating Place engage in chit chat (the long lines themselves a convenient topic of conversation). During busy times—Saturday afternoons in particular, as well as periods when the Convention Center, which is next door, sends swarms of people through the market—patience comes in particularly handy, as queues for popular merchants can be a hundred deep and the aisles so glutted that they feel almost impenetrable.

(Christopher Maier)

When the market’s a little less busy, longer or more intentional interactions seem to take place—among friends and strangers. People walk slower, browse more, and appear more amenable to small talk.

On quiet weekday mornings, groups of acquaintances (usually men) gather with newspapers, coffee, and what seems like endless fodder for conversation. The sounds of the men laughing or competing to make a point mingles with the aromas of smoke and cooking food

The bulk of the congregating happens in the communal seating area at the heart of the market. Here small tables are pushed together to form a vast bank of lined tables offering a few hundred seats, the perfect setting for regulars to meet and kick off the day. And when the market gets busy, the close configuration of the seating encourages visitors to sit near each other, to be comfortable with each other, to potentially even talk.

                                                                ****

Around 12:30 p.m. on a busy Saturday in February, seats in the central seating area are tough to come by. Many people, after scouting and hovering for a few minutes, wander off to try to find one of the solo tables that line several of the aisles or simply to seek out a small patch of space where they can linger long enough to wolf down a quick bite.

A middle-aged couple rushes toward a four-person table that’s just opened up. They grab it. And after they quickly settle in, they see a younger, twentysomething couple scanning the tables. The middle-aged woman waves an arm and motions to the two extra seats at their table.

“Are these open?” the younger woman asks, over the din of the other diners.

“As long as you don’t mind sitting with strangers,” the older woman says.

“Not at all!” comes the reply.

A moment later, the two couples begin eating lunch together.

                                                                ****

It turns out Bobbi, the 74-year-old woman from Norristown, isn’t at the market alone. She’s been sitting by herself while she waits for her granddaughter, Tiara, to return from the restroom.

At 22, Tiara says she doesn’t come to the market nearly as much as her grandmother does. She hints that it feels like it’s a spot for older patrons—something that the market’s general manager Anuj Gupta hopes to correct not only through more concept-driven offerings, but also through programming like free movie nights and affordable after-hours fundraising galas that play to a younger demographic.

Once people step inside, he hopes, they’ll see that there’s something for them—whether they’re young or old, rich or poor, picking up food or just looking to relax for a minute or two.

Or whether they’re 74-year-old Bobbi or 22-year-old Tiara.

Tiara says she can’t really say why she doesn’t come to the market very often. She looks around. It’s late in the afternoon on a cold Thursday in February and the market is starting to wind down. But nearby, a middle-aged couple steps away from the bar at Molly Malloy’s and dances their way into the main seating area. A pair of late-teen girls wander by, one asking, “How do you even decide where to go?” There’s a certain vibrancy to the place, even in the off-peak hours.

“This really is a nice place to hang out,” she concedes. And rather than get up to catch the train, the two women decide to sit and enjoy the market for a little while longer.

This article was written with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a broader examination of the challenges, opportunities, levers, behaviors, and mindsets that impact socioeconomic mixing in public spaces and the civic commons.

About the Author

  • Christopher Maier is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, producer of the cultural event series Little Salon, and founder of the storytelling agency Made By Little.