Both of Leon Calomiris's parents were previously interviewed for the Overbeck Project, and his September, 2010, interview with Peter Barker provides yet another perspective, this one from the third generation of the Greek family that owns Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables at Eastern Market. As a teenager, Leon served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives and attended the Capitol Page School for three years in the early 1980s. After a short stint as a certified automotive mechanic, he joined the family business in which he had worked since childhood. The discussion covers all aspects of his experiences at Eastern Market, including the horror of the 2007 fire at the Market, the aftermath, and his enduring gratitude to those who made the Market's renovation possible.
[Leon Calomiris supplied some Eastern Market documents to interviewer Peter Barker, who scanned them. The following files are available: (1) 1964 documents related to the CENEAST GROUP INC., the corporation established by Eastern Market vendors; (2) 1963-64 Analysis of Rental Income for CENEAST GROUP INC.; (3) occupancy records of Eastern Market stands from 1963-2006, handwritten by Leon’s father, Chris Calomiris; (4) a 1972 receipt for rent paid by Calomiris.]
BARKER: This is Peter Barker interviewing Leon Calomiris, co-owner of Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables at the Eastern Market. It is the 28th of September, it’s currently about 9:45. We are in an office at the Coldwell Banker [real estate office] on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Market. How are you doing today?
CALOMIRIS: I’m doing great, how are you?
BARKER: I’m doing wonderful. So I guess I want to sort of, start off at the beginning here. You grew up in DC right?
CALOMIRIS: Correct. Actually I was born in Washington Hospital Center, but I grew up in Silver Spring—
BARKER: Oh, Silver Spring.
BARKER: So, what was it like, growing up in that neighborhood, as someone [myself] who hasn’t lived in DC very long?
CALOMIRIS: I was born in 1966, so I witnessed quite a change, as far as, my mother [Maria Calomiris] was probably one of the few working mothers when I was going to school. Most of my friends, all their mothers stayed at home and their fathers were off working. So I was basically raised by my grandmother—my father’s mother, who lived in our house, and she took care of me.
BARKER: What was her name?
CALOMIRIS: Zoe [Calomiris]
BARKER: Zoe, okay. Oh, so is that who your sister is named after?
BARKER: So you were, what, I guess two years old when the, when the big race riots happened right?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, yes. I don’t remember any of the violence or anything like that. I came up pretty much after that—but it definitely, you can tell it affected demographics of stuff, of schools, and my neighborhood.
BARKER: Right, so you said you were, sort of raised by your grandmother and … was the community pretty tight? I mean, did you have a lot of friends when you were growing up?
CALOMIRIS: Yeah, because my heritage is Greek—and there were five Greek families that lived pretty much in a row on Georgia Avenue, which is where I grew up. And they were all very close. My grandmother knew very little English, and because she stayed at home, my grandfather, who actually started the business with my father, many, many years before that—
BARKER: This was Thomas [Calomiris]?
CALOMIRIS: —was dead. This was Thomas
CALOMIRIS: He was dead. He died in ’56. So my grandmother lived with my father and us, my family, and her English was not very good. But she actually did very well because everybody on that row also was in the same boat: older Greek women, and they used to hang out together and talk, and have a little cocktail or you know.
CALOMIRIS: So it was very close community actually, I have a lot of friends in that neighborhood too.
BARKER: Where did you go to elementary school?
CALOMIRIS: I started in Dennis Avenue Elementary. Then I ended up going to Reverend Thomas Daniels Greek Orthodox Parochial School, which is in DC. Believe it or not, most of my education is in DC. So I started, and that was on 16th Street, where St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church is, and I went there. Then I went to St. John’s Military, which was on Military Road in DC, and I was a US Senate Page for three years, and I went to Capitol Page School for three years. Then I went back to St. John’s and graduated in 1984.
BARKER: When you were growing up, did you and your brother [Thomas Calomiris] and sisters all get along alright?
CALOMIRIS: Yes we did, actually.
CALOMIRIS: It was never really—I’m five years younger than my brother who was two years younger than my sister.
CALOMIRIS: So I’m the youngest, and the age gap meant a lot. They were more protective of me, I guess then, you know, me having a feud with them.
BARKER: Right, right. In his interview, your father [Chris Calomiris] described you as, sort of, the rougher one.
CALOMIRIS: Yeah, you know [laughs] I’m the rougher—I’m more protective of them—
CALOMIRIS: Yes, it’s I guess basically—my parents are very nice, calm people. I guess you can say that I’ve witnessed some folks trying to take advantage of that, and then I kind of have to be the one—not because I enjoy it—but I’m the one who tries to help them out. So, he probably takes it like that. I don’t know that I’m rough but I am a little more aggressive, I guess you can say I’m more type-A then they are.
BARKER: Uh, so … what was the high school you went to?
CALOMIRIS: High school? I was … Capitol Page School—because I was a Senate Page from 1980 to 1983—
CALOMIRIS: Back when that was—I happened to go right when the scandal happened, and they changed it from high school to a one-year deal, and they did it right at the year that I was to graduate. So, they stopped me in 1983 and I had to go back to regular high school. [ed: In 1983 it was revealed that Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass) had engaged in sexual relations with 17 year old Congressional pages in 1980 and 1973 respectively. Because Washington DC’s age of consent was 16, no crime was found to be committed. The House also found that James Howarth, who had been supervising the pages had been engaged in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female page. Several staffers were also implicated in selling and buying narcotics.]
BARKER: So this was a high school that was specifically for kids who were serving as Senate Pages?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, and House pages, at the time it was called the US Capitol Page School.
BARKER: Would they do it at the Capitol?
CALOMIRIS: The Library of Congress, the Jefferson Building up at the—top floor.
BARKER: And then you went back to public school after that.
CALOMIRIS: No I went to St. John’s—
BARKER: St. John’s
CALOMIRIS: —which was a private school that was a semi-military high school. Actually I went there seventh and eighth which was the middle school, but they didn’t have the military program. Then I went to Page School for ninth, tenth and eleventh—
CALOMIRIS: —and then I went to twelfth back to—St. John’s, and it happened to be military.
BARKER: So what was it like at the military school that you—
CALOMIRIS: I was the odd ball out. You know, it was very funny because I had a lot of friends there, who were there and, believe it or not, in Greek school—even in my primary education, or what do you call it, my elementary school. Several of the kids who were there went to St. John’s with me in seventh and eighth grade. They were still there even up till twelfth grade, because they went from seventh to twelfth. So, as far as knowing people, I wasn’t bad. I still knew quite a few people.
What was different was, I jumped from—when you go to a military school you have rank. So when you go into in as a private in your freshman year—I went in as a private in my senior year. That’s kind of weird because here I am a senior with no rank, and usually the only seniors with no ranks were not, you know, the brightest of the bright. But, they knew my situation—actually St. John’s was very sympathetic to my situation from Page School, they actually arranged—they did a lot of good, great stuff to let me graduate on time. I had to make up classes that were requirements from freshman year that I didn’t have, and they actually made exceptions in my senior year.
BARKER: Well, that’s good.
CALOMIRIS: So yes. So it was a little harder to acclimate but …
BARKER: Did you, did you think about going to college?
CALOMIRIS: I did go to college.
BARKER: Where did you go to college?
CALOMIRIS: Maryland University for two years, and Montgomery College for two years.
BARKER: What did you—what did you decide to major in?
CALOMIRIS: It was automotive technology.
BARKER: So at that point you didn’t think you were going to take over for your Dad in the Market?
CALOMIRIS: Well … Page School, basically, when I was a Senate Page, the school wasn’t exactly … you had to go to school from 6 am to 10 am, and the classes in that school were very limited. We always had to be at work an hour before they [the Senate] came into session, no matter what. So if the Senate came into session at nine you had to be there at eight. Therefore you’d have school from six to eight.
CALOMIRIS: Classes were not very beneficial. In other words, I did it for a very long time and it kind of messed with my academics shall we say. So when I went to St. John’s—they made me take all the requirements and I graduated on time, but I was lacking math skills, this and that. So when I got into college, I was kind of like, not prepared for the math and all of that. And I wasn’t exactly the greatest student in the world, to be honest with you, to begin with. So I went to something that I knew a lot about. I was always good with my hands, I was always good with cars, stuff like that. So I actually majored in it.
BARKER: So, when you were growing up though, did you, did you know that the Market was what you were going to do, or—
CALOMIRIS: I thought, you know, I can’t … I honestly could not … I didn’t ever think that I was going to stay in the Market. When you start as young as I did, and the fact that it was not an air-conditioned place, it was a hard life. I saw how my parents had a hard life. They didn’t want me, actually, they didn’t want me to stay there.
They were like, “go to school, go to school.” You know, like most parents they pounded it into my head, “go to school, go to school”, and I didn’t listen [laughs]. But … after I got out of school, and I was a certified mechanic, okay, so, I did that for two years. I was at Lake Forest Oldsmobile in Gaithersburg for two years also, as a mechanic—couldn’t stand it. Then I realized that it wasn’t because I didn’t like the work, it’s just because, you realize that after you’ve had your own family business, people on the outside treat you worse. I thought I got treated badly, but the truth is I didn’t get treated badly, it’s just the hard work, but I didn’t get treated badly. I went to work for a dealership and they treated me really badly, and you didn’t have your family to take care of you, and you just realize that, gee, this isn’t, you know, my family business wasn’t so bad. So I ended up quitting the shop after two years and I started working at the Market full-time.
BARKER: So as we were walking here, you mentioned that you first started coming to the Market when you were seven.
BARKER: What’s sort of your earliest memories of the Market coming here as a kid?
CALOMIRIS: I have a lot actually. We would go around, we had a little shopping cart that I would actually make a go-cart out of and wheel myself up and down the Market aisles. [laughs] And everybody at the time thought it was kind of cute, but as I got older I guess it wasn’t so cute anymore. [laughs]
BARKER: Was this when the Market was open?
CALOMIRIS: Yeah, oh yeah.
BARKER: So you were dodging customers?
CALOMIRIS: Yeah, that’d be one thing. As I was telling you, I remember going to people, Doris [Janofsky] who had the bakery prior to the people who have it now. She’s a very sweet woman, would always give me cookies or cupcakes or something like that. I’d go back and bother them, or go behind Melvin’s [Mel Inman’s Market Poultry] stand and mess around. Very playful atmosphere when I was young … very fond memories actually.
BARKER: So when did you start doing chores?
CALOMIRIS: I always did—believe it or not for a seven year old, and you’ve got to put this in context, I did a lot for a seven year old.
CALOMIRIS: But I was seven, I was small. You know, but as far as waiting on customers, I have to say that the Market taught me just about everything I know. It taught me how to count. It taught me how to use my hands with knives, how to cut things, how to decorate things. The thing about it, you don’t even realize you’re doing it, but you’re doing it and you’re learning a lot from a very young age. So, it teaches you how to stack things so they don’t fall over, how to cut things, how to deal with people, how to count, how to, I mean just about every … common sense thing that you use in life, I learned from a very young age which I’m very, you know, it helped me throughout my life actually.
BARKER: So were you regularly helping at the Market?
CALOMIRIS: Oh yes, I had an apron on. I waited on people. Of course customers thought I was kind of cute at the time, so they’d tip you if you helped them out to their cars with their bags, stuff like that. Now? Forget it now [laughs]. Then they’d throw you a quarter or—
BARKER: [laughs] Uh-huh
CALOMIRIS: —fifty cents or whatever and it was nice.
BARKER: Yeah. And so you were you coming over after school? Was it—
CALOMIRIS: Every weekend, every Saturday, at the time. We didn’t start opening on Sundays till later. The Market used to be closed Sunday and Monday, instead of now when it’s just Monday. But every Saturday after my—my grandmother raised me, but she passed away in ’76. So after she passed away, basically I had nowhere else to go. I never had a baby-sitter or anything thing like that. It was always my grandmother—my grandmother and then for about another six months a neighbor, one of the Greek people that I was telling you about, she took care of me. Actually they baptized my sister, and they took care of me for a while but then she passed away. Okay? So after they both passed away—
BARKER: What was her name?
CALOMIRIS: Frances … Polus.
BARKER: This was in the neighborhood—
CALOMIRIS: Frances and George—
BARKER: —of Silver Spring
CALOMIRIS: Yes four houses, literally four houses down, and George that was her husband.
BARKER: So it sounds like the Greek Orthodox community and the church was fairly important in your life, you went to parochial school and—
CALOMIRIS: Oh yes, yes all of my friends—yeah. It was social too. It was very tight. I had friends for a long—and now unfortunately everyone has gone their own way and I don’t see them much anymore, and like I said the older folks pretty much have all passed away. The neighborhood—they’ve all moved. There’s one guy, actually my next-door neighbor is probably—I see his truck’s there so I imagine he’s still there but he’s the only one.
BARKER: So how did you get down to the Market if you’re—when you’re coming down from Silver Spring?
CALOMIRIS: I always had my mother—came down every day by either bus, or my sister or my brother.
BARKER: So your sister and brother were doing the same thing you were?
BARKER: So are you still living in Silver Spring?
CALOMIRIS: No, now I live off of Jones Bridge Road in Bethesda.
BARKER: In Bethesda. Are you married?
BARKER: So when did you and your brother start, sort of taking over more of the business, I mean you mentioned that you were doing chores, when did you start moving beyond that?
CALOMIRIS: Well, again, definitely Mom and Dad were the boss. We all had our assigned duties, like … even earlier, even in the 80s—I guess in high school I started doing more. My dad used to go every day to, when the wholesalers were on Florida Avenue. That’s relatively close to the Market, and believe it or not, they had a close relationship. Dad had a close relationship to the wholesalers that you can’t find now either. It’s just like people coming to me on a retail level having a close relationship, he had that kind of relationship with wholesalers. So he could go down there and literally pick out this, that, that and the other and they’d actually have a guy there waiting for him to bring the stuff from there to the Market. We also had a van for stuff—he would use it for a few things, but never on the level. Now I don’t get that kind of service from my wholesalers. So I have to go with a big truck and pick stuff up, and that changed over the years. Like I said, he had a better personal relationship than I could have now, period with any of my guys. I guess that started to change over in the 80s.
BARKER: Why do you think that happened?
CALOMIRIS: Same reason as mom and pop shops going down now. It‘s big guys taking over. There’s less of … I guess less of a choice, and when you have less of a choice the service tends to go down.
BARKER: Mmhmm. So your dad was the guy who handled the wholesalers?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, and Mom would come down very early and she would deal with customers, setting the stand up, stuff like that.
BARKER: So then what were, on Saturdays, what were you and your sister and brother doing?
CALOMIRIS: Selling. We had a lot of, and believe it or not, all of us—it’s funny because first my dad’s nephew and nieces from his brother’s kids would work at the Market early, a long time ago, 60s, when they first came over from the other market. Then, we had my sister’s friends who did a tour of duty. It would be not only us it would be our friends, because my parents would need help and who else to get better trusting friends—I mean people to work than the friends of your children? They all needed jobs, they were all teenagers. So they would come and work. Then after my sister and her friends got old enough and they took off and did whatever, it was my brother’s friends’ turn and then it was my friends’ turn. [laughs] So basically we all had, it was like the tour of duty for the Market.
BARKER: So was that true for the other merchants too? I mean was there sort of this community basis they were all drawing on?
CALOMIRIS: Yes for the most part …
BARKER: So you got—
CALOMIRIS: We were in a little bit of a different predicament because I guess … I’m trying to think who else was in our predicament. Melvin for sure. Glasgows pretty much, they had such a big family that I think they—they had enough family members to cover everything. Yes, you still see it now actually with the Canaleses, they bring in some people who are friends of theirs and they bring in friends. Yes that’s pretty much how it works.
BARKER: So how did your dad transition you guys into doing the wholesaling, or was that just something that happened naturally?
CALOMIRIS: It happened naturally, honestly. We watched what he did. Like I said, things have … I can’t go to my guys, I mean, I can go to some of them and they give me relatively—they give me—you have to put it in context, for what we have I have good service. But it’s just now you have so fewer people, I have to go to the Eastern Shore now, for example to get local produce, and I have a guy that I’ve been personally dealing with for a good 20 years. But Dad, when he was here he was fortunate enough to have people who would go over there and bring him stuff, and bring him top-notch stuff. They’d come up and say, “Hey Chris, got a good bunch of peaches here,” or a good whatever, much more personal. That’s kind of lacking nowadays. I have to go search for it basically.
BARKER: Yes, so where do you get your produce from?
CALOMIRIS: All over … We have one guy, our main wholesaler, because obviously local stuff only comes for a certain amount of time, and it’s very limited in scope. I’m a full service produce stand so we carry over 200 items. Most of it is not indigenous to the area. So it comes from a wholesaler, most of it comes from a wholesaler that we have in Landover. My local guy is on the Eastern Shore, and he carries certain things. He carries cantaloupes, tomatoes, corn, watermelons, pumpkins. Then I have an orchard that I go to, to deal with the peaches and the apples. They’re also on the Eastern Shore. Then you have my olive oil guy who is an importer that I have to deal with. I have my water guy, then I have my juice guy, the apple juices and stuff like that. They’re all over.
BARKER: So you’re driving the truck out to meet them?
CALOMIRIS: Pretty much.
BARKER: How often do you do that?
CALOMIRIS: In the summer it’s more often, probably two to three times a week. In the winter when I only have to deal with juices and stuff like that, I don’t get them on the—they’re already in bottles and stuff like that so maybe you go once a month, something like that.
BARKER: How have you tried to keep up relations with these—I mean, it seems like you’ve dealt with them for a while now.
CALOMIRIS: You just, you know, you’re kind to them. Hopefully they give you good product, and they see your face enough and they begin to warm up to you, pretty natural actually. It’s a shame that it doesn’t happen more often, but it doesn’t. It’s just a loyalty thing I guess, you just keep going to the same person, you try to find the same person you dealt with and after a while they get to know you.
BARKER: Do you think you have that same kind of relationship with your customers?
CALOMIRIS: Oh absolutely, for the most part, yes. Absolutely.
BARKER: Has Capitol Hill the neighborhood and the area around here, has that changed a lot since you were a kid?
CALOMIRIS: Yes. It’s very transient, it always has been. Because we’re kind of intertwined with Congress, and you have staffers that come and go all the time, you get—I think you can break it down to a couple—you have the older folks with the families who live here, and who have been here a very long time, they’re actually still coming. Unfortunately now that I’ve been here so long, a lot of them are passing away and their kids are moving someplace. Then you have your transients, which is the bulk of the people. They come and go with their congressmen, senators, staffers and stuff like that. So unfortunately you get to know them but then they leave. Then you have a lot of—actually, you have a lot of the people who were here who left, who come back and retire back to the neighborhood because they like it [laughs] so you kind of see them again but in a smaller context, they don’t need as much. Their families have moved away or whatever so they just....
BARKER: So how do you think Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables—what would say is the reason that Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables has survived against say, a Safeway or a Giant or a Whole Foods?
CALOMIRIS: It’s a combination of service—one thing that we can’t compete—the only, unfortunately for mom and pop shops in general is that you really can’t compete as far as price is concerned. You don’t deal in the same level as a Giant or a Safeway. They sell stuff so cheap sometimes that I can’t even get it that cheap wholesale. Where I can compete with them is the quality of the stuff that I have, and the service that I give people. That’s the only two things that I have that I can compete with. Safeway is not personable at all, you get no service basically, and their quality, in my opinion, from looking—you know, I mean I do go check it out, is not as good. I can do—because I have to do smaller purchases, I can’t store—number one I can’t store stuff as long even if I wanted to, and number two I actually care about what I’m looking at when I’m buying it to sell to somebody, whereas when you go to a big store, in just about anything they don’t care. You have an employee there, you give them whatever, they put out whatever, they sell it to whoever, and that’s it.
BARKER: So how do you—you talk about service, what do think you do especially that sort of sets your service apart?
CALOMIRIS: Number one I know my produce. If you wanted something that’s ripe I can tell you, if you wanted something that was in season I can tell you. If you wanted to learn how to—I mean I’m a decent cook, so if you want to learn how to cook something I can tell you. That’s number one. Number two, if you had an order for something special that you couldn’t find, I could try to get it for you … Basically I care [laughs].
BARKER: Your father talked a lot in his—his interview about the various, uh, renovation plans and, sort of, health board pushes that happened in the 60s and 70s and 80s. When all the renovations were happening did you feel that you were threatened at all by that? That the business was threatened?
CALOMIRIS: Prior to the fire you mean?
CALOMIRIS: Because these are two different histories.
BARKER: Right yeah, sort of prior to the fire.
CALOMIRIS: Prior to the fire it was a nightmare. Because the stuff that we were pushing … . All my life, I mean as far back as I remember there’s been feuds going on about what to do with the building. The Market got—don’t hold me to this, but it got historic designation was on the inside and on the outside. The outside, I believe happened first, I don’t know exactly when, but I think the outside, it got designated—I mean the Market was in danger of getting ripped apart when my father first came here. They didn’t know whether they wanted a market here, whether it was lucrative. It was still city owned, they didn’t know whether they were going to demolish it and put up something else, because it was prime property I guess. So they designated it historical, therefore it’s protected, but I think the inside, it was like the early 70s before it got designation and protected. Well, once they protected it, then changes came so slow through so much bureaucracy and stuff like that, they couldn’t upgrade what needed to be upgraded, because the building was a hundred and something years old. It didn’t have—I mean you’ve got to remember something, we didn’t have any of the—the heating was substandard, it had no air conditioning. It was a hazard, a hazard for a very long time.
I mean, we all would joke about, “How is this place still standing?” This is prior to the fire—because all the wiring was hanging. They had posts up in the basement that were holding the floors up. Those were supposed to be temporary but they were put in like the 30s but they were still there until the fire. You had plumbing problems, any kind of problem that you can think of. So was it detrimental? Yeah, I’m surprised something bad didn’t happen before the fire, to be honest with you. That was, without getting into detail, that was an argument that was between the inside people and the outside people and, you know this, how many groups were involved in this. That was part of the infighting for years.
BARKER: So the indoor market, the indoor merchants and the outdoor merchants weren’t getting along?
CALOMIRIS: No we get along fine, we just have disagreements as to, I guess, to priorities. They had their problems too, and I’m not negating them. They had a shed that was falling apart too and this and that. I don’t know why all of it wasn’t done earlier but, I’m not into that.
BARKER: So did you, I mean, how did the merchants try to make themselves heard to the politicians who were trying to—were responsible for the renovations?
CALOMIRIS: Well, Bill Glasgow was the Market representative, the man who has Union Meats, and he’s been doing a nice job. We would usually go to him with our gripes, which he wasn’t too keen about. He would argue them in EMCAC [Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee] which is another committee that, I think the problem with this whole bit before this was too many chefs spoil the stew. You’d have, a good ten committees, each with about ten, fifteen votes and honestly as merchants, I think we knew more what that place needed than anybody else. Only because, after you work in a place for 30 years you know what’s broken, you know what leaks, you know what needs patching, you know this kind of stuff. You know what affects your business and we honestly didn’t have that much of a say in it. That was one of the problems. I honestly, that’s part of one of the reasons – that’s an indirect reason why I think the Market burned.
BARKER: Because there were just too many arguments over what to do with it?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, it’s like why should you take so long, we’d been operating without a lease for 30 some years. Why are you taking so long to fix safety issues? We’re not even talking about aesthetical issues, we’re talking about safety issues, we had that argument all the time.
BARKER: I know a lot of people in the Market itself were concerned about it being, sort of, “yuppiefied” I guess or being turned into a Dean and Deluca. Were you concerned about that?
CALOMIRIS: Originally yes, but then eventually that went away because, yeah I mean for years they had that plan where they were going to displace us, maybe add a second floor, but if I recall, those plans were pretty much shot down a good ten years ago—ten, fifteen years ago.
BARKER: Do you know why?
CALOMIRIS: I don’t. That was more Dad’s—my father was pretty much involved in the meetings and stuff like that. I don’t know whether it was—I think it was just because the public didn’t want it, thankfully.
BARKER: So your Dad was really heavily involved in these discussions?
CALOMIRIS: He’d go to all the meetings. I don’t know that he was so much involved with the actual discussions, but—he was a little disappointed too in the fact that people couldn’t come to consensuses.
BARKER: Did he try to—
CALOMIRIS: I was very disappointed, I mean me, the reason I didn’t get more involved was because I watched him go to many meetings, come home very late, I mean the man was up at 3 am and he didn’t get home until 10 pm. Then it would disgust me that he would be going to these things and nothing would ever—year after year after year you’d have the same issue.
Leon’s father Chris Calomiris at his produce stand with visiting athletes; approximate date: early-mid 1970s
BARKER: Did you and the other merchants try other avenues?
CALOMIRIS: No … you’ve got to remember what we’re talking about, we were coming up during certain administrations that weren’t exactly the most helpful. [laughs]
BARKER: This was the Barry, Marion Barry specifically, right?
CALOMIRIS: I mean if anything you’d ask for something and get the opposite. [laughs]
BARKER: So you mentioned that EMCAC, the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee—what kind of relationship did you have with them?
CALOMIRIS: Me or my father? I had a good relationship with them. I mean I have no problem with them, they were—everybody was out to help, I mean they want to help you. Everybody wanted to see the Market succeed. I think it’s just the way that it’s done is counter to success. I just think that if you have too many people involved with too many different ideas, with nobody who has a final—[bangs table] Bam! It’s just not going anywhere. So I don’t have any problem—I know a few of the people on it and I think they’re great, but I don’t know, it’s just that when we get one vote, and it’s our businesses that are in the thick of it, I don’t know. I just think that they should have a panel or something where they take more of our ideas seriously, that’s all.
BARKER: So let’s talk a little bit about the fire. Can you tell me about the day it happened?
CALOMIRIS: [sighs] Yes, terrible day. Believe it or not my brother and I were the last two out of the building. It was a Sunday. And me being my little construction self—because, I basically built my stand, I had an addition to put on it. The original stand I didn’t build, it was there from when my father came. But over the years you scrap something you put something else on it, you make it bigger, blah, blah. The day before, on that Sunday—the fire happened on a Monday morning I believe [Monday, April 30th 2007]. That Sunday I came in with these two additions that I put onto the stand, and I did this after we closed at 5:00 [pm]. So after 5:00 I came, I did this, we took out some old junk to the dumpsters in the back. I didn’t even have it painted, it was literally raw wood, and I was going to come in Monday, on my day off, to paint it. And I was joking with my brother, I said, “Tom,” I was like, “Look!” you know.
He goes, “What time?” because he was going to come do it with me, he was like “What time do you want me to come?” And I was like, “Later because I really want to sleep in.” He’s like—[hand twirling gestures] because he wanted to come early, and I was like, “Just don’t mess with me, I’m tired, I don’t want to come in early, we have all day, come in at 11:00 or so.”
B-B-B-ring! My phone rings at like 5 am and I thought it was my brother joking with me, right, on Monday. So the phone’s ringing. I was like, “I’m not even going to answer this,” so I didn’t answer it, went back to bed. About a couple of hours later, B-B-B-ring and I was like, “Okay, something’s up, maybe something happened. Maybe something happened to my Dad and I should answer this.” So I picked up the phone, and it’s my father and he’s like, “Hey what’s up?” And I was like, “What’s up Pop, you okay?” And he’s like, “Well, did you hear?” And I was like, “Did I hear what?” He’s like, “The Market’s on fire.” I lost it. I mean I thought, “Fire? What, bad?” And he’s like, “I don’t know.”
My brother had gone down already. My father who’s elderly now, he was in his 80s at this point. He was upset but he really didn’t have a way—we didn’t want to bring him down at that particular point. So I get up—I freaked out basically. I go—didn’t even shower, I barely—I put on a shirt, got in a car and drove down, and I’m thinking, “Okay, how bad can this be?” Because really the Market, when I look at it there’s not much—it’s pretty much a masonry building, and we didn’t have that much inside that was flammable, and I’m like, “How?” So I get to Sixth Street, I came in off of [I-]295, I get to Sixth Street, and you already—from like South Carolina Avenue, with the way I came, was taped off. That’s how big of a grid that they had taped off. And I was like, “Oh Jeez.” So I parked the car, go walk in, and they had Seventh Street taped off.
Walked up and I’m thinking to myself, “Okay prepare yourself,” because I didn’t know what I was going to see. So I look and it was awful, I mean it was just horrible. It was like, you could hear a pin drop. It’s amazing, with all the commotion and all the stuff like that, just people were sitting there staring. And I’m staring, and I’m like—and came up the back way kind of, and I saw where the scorch mark was, and I can tell, because I knew from the day before the dumpster was full of garbage, full. When I say full, we had three dumpsters there actually and they were so full that I couldn’t throw even, any more trash, any higher than I could. Okay? And you could see the scorch marks going up the side of the building and you could see where the gutter on one side liquefied, it just was gone—it wasn’t even—it didn’t even exist.
BARKER: The fire started near the dumpsters then?
CALOMIRIS: I knew that it did, well, here’s—that’s another issue, that’s later. But yes, I knew that that’s where something happened.
CALOMIRIS: Okay. I flipped out. Basically I go in the front on Seventh Street where all the shops are and stuff like that and I’m sitting there and—actually that’s when I saw the Mayor [Adrian Fenty] there by himself. You know it was kind of funny, because I liked Fenty from the—and I don’t mean just because he was saving my business, but he was there without anybody else, no cameras, no whatever. He looked sad. He did, he looked sad. Everybody looked sad. You couldn’t go there and not see anybody on the streets who was like … . So they did their—they roped it off, I guess they did somewhat of an investigation or whatever, and then they eventually let us in, in case we had anything—money, valuables. They’d take one person, give them a hard hat and tell them to go into the building to get what they needed, escorted—at a time, because they still were afraid that it was dangerous.
CALOMIRIS: The whole building was like—the roof had collapsed. Rubble—pictures didn’t even do it justice, because when I got there I had rubble to my waist, and there was nothing left in there, nothing. I could save—I tried to save two items, couldn’t save them.
BARKER: So there was, there was not one thing left from the original stand after that fire?
CALOMIRIS: The only thing that I got out intact was the safe, because this thing was like ridiculous, it’s like a thousand pound piece of steel. It was fine. As far as my stuff? I had an antique cash register that I pulled out. It was scorched and bent and stuff, and the one thing that I really miss the most was my Dad’s original—my dad had the original sign from K Street [Market]. So the original sign when him and my grandfather opened up the place, which was hand-painted. Basic sign, but it was classic, it was, you know it was—and what happened was the fire didn’t get it, but it fell, when it fell off of the scaffolding, because all of the stuff that was hanging off the scaffolding fell when the roof collapsed. So when it fell, it faced up, and then when they hit it with the water from the fire engines and stuff like that, it basically wiped all the lettering away. So there’s nothing to save. I mean literally the safe was the only thing I got out of there.
BARKER: So, what were you thinking at this point?
CALOMIRIS: What do I do?
BARKER: Did you think—did you think there’d be a business after this?
CALOMIRIS: No. I want to say I didn’t. As a matter of fact I went home, and you know who inspired me here? My father eventually came down, he’s very—my parents are super people in a sense that they’re used to tragedy. So, to them this wasn’t even—to me it was the end of the world. To them, they were like, “Okay, we’ll be okay.” So Dad came down, he actually had—he was actually in good spirits. People were talk—of course everybody recognized him on the street, and everybody came over to console him, and this and that and the other, and he’s like, “Oh, you know, we’re going to do alright.”
Mom was the one who was the rock, because when I got home—Mom didn’t come down, and I kind of wondered why. I don’t know why—well she didn’t want to see it, whatever. So I go home, go over, I’m basically almost bawling. So I go up to her, and I was like, “Ma, what are we going to do?” Man, she turns around and she looks at me, and she didn’t even miss a stride, she said, “You’re going to go get a truck and you’re going to go open up, we’re going to go back to work.” Didn’t miss a stride. [laughs]
BARKER: Where did she think you were going to open up?
CALOMIRIS: Outside—which we did, within a week we were outside.
BARKER: Yeah. So you mentioned how traumatizing this was, and not just for you guys—been there your whole life, but for the community as well. I mean, why do you think the Market has, has such a place in the hearts of the community here, if it’s so transient?
CALOMIRIS: I guess when you’re in a place as fractious as DC, I mean you have one thing that’s stable. You have one thing that you see there that you can count on. I mean, that’s the only thing that I can pretty much say. I mean not so much with me, but if you look at how, again, how the old timers—if you look at my parents, and I’m sure other merchants in the Market, you’re pretty much guaranteed that if you come back—something really bad has to happen for you to come back and us be gone. So it’s one constant in an area that’s not constant. That’s about the only thing I can see.
BARKER: Were you surprised at all by the how the community came together for the merchants?
CALOMIRIS: We always loved them, we didn’t know what we were going to get. We knew they were going to be supportive, but we just didn’t realize that it was that much. I mean, it was—is pretty awesome, like I said, we opened up within a week. It burned on Monday, on Saturday we were selling out on the street. Most of the merchants were selling. Whatever they could, even if—wasn’t much and it wasn’t what we normally can give people. It wasn’t the 200 thing display that I had and all this, but whatever we could throw in the van—I eventually bought a refrigerated truck, because it got a little, you know, as time went on we picked up a little bit. But originally it was the van, and it was whatever stuff you could throw on a table outside.
CALOMIRIS: And the meat people did it too, they packaged their meat, because obviously without refrigeration it’s tough. So they would get refrigerated trucks too, and they would vacuum-pack it, which would make it last longer. We had to get scales, we—and the city was great at coming and okay-ing certain things. You know they overlooked certain things because we didn’t have time. I mean, literally the fire happens so we lost all our licenses we lost all—everything in the fire. So they pretty much came and remedied all that stuff quickly, and within a few days we were setting up.
BARKER: Where exactly were you setting up in the area?
CALOMIRIS: Seventh Street.
BARKER: Oh wow!
CALOMIRIS: Right in front of the Market. They fenced it, then they started doing their, you know. It took a while and the plan was to build a temporary building, but it still took four months, which is also miraculous by the way. In four months they took the parking lot across the street and made a temporary building for us, which is what you see there [points to laminated paper on the table].
[shuffling sounds, picking up laminated paper]
BARKER: This is the [indicating newspaper on table] this is a picture from the Washington Times Metropolitan Section, uh, it’s a picture [of the temporary building]—this building is still there isn’t it?
CALOMIRIS: Still there.
BARKER: Do you know if they have any plans to do anything with that temporary building?
CALOMIRIS: I believe the building is—it’s a re-usable building. So I’m pretty sure they’re going to sell it, or … I don’t think they’re going to trash it, but the property is slated—it’s already been sold, and it’s going to be developed so …
BARKER: Did they … when they did the investigation, did they come and tell you what had caused the fire?
CALOMIRIS: They said 90—yes. Here’s where, and again this is me talking, not anybody else. Originally they claimed that it was an electrical fire, started on the inside, okay? I personally think it wasn’t, because on the same day they had three other fires in the city. Georgetown Library burnt, and they had another dumpster fire, something, and to this day—in all my life nothing ever happened three in a row, up until that point, nothing ever happened three in a row after that point. I think it was more than that.
BARKER: You think someone might have—
CALOMIRIS: I think it was—I think someone was just having a good old time and went and lit a match in the back where all that stuff was stacked, lit it. It got to the roof and from the roof … my opinion.
BARKER: Mmhmm, I understand.
CALOMIRIS: [laughs] I’m not a fire marshal or anything like that.
BARKER: Right. Were you surprised by how the community came together?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, very much so, because I knew that they loved us and we loved them, and they knew that. But, you know, you kind of say, I’m still the produce guy. What do I mean to these people? They’re going to go someplace else. But when you see little kids with their piggy banks, they literally set up kiosks and stands and stuff where people were donating money, and people donated a lot of money. Teams donated, they even got the DC United donating money, a substantial amount. I think at the end, and again I’m not sure exactly what the total figure was, but it was over 400,000 bucks.
BARKER: I think it was $450,000, something like that.
CALOMIRIS: Okay. That’s crazy! That’s—I mean for nickel and diming and you can get that much money, with the exception of a few who gave a lot, they did, and Home Depot gave—they gave us cards. It’s amazing! I never thought—you know, I didn’t think we meant that much to everybody, so no, it was incredible actually.
BARKER: So has that changed your perception of the community, or did you always sort of have that sense?
CALOMIRIS: I’ve always loved the community, I’ve always had that sense because there’s something different also, starting with what I did in my youth, I’ve had customers whose children I’ve known since they were children. Unfortunately, they move away, they go other places and then, yeah. Kids, they get to a point now where it’s not cool to be in the Market anymore. You notice a trend, it’s like from very young until about 12 or 13 they love coming to the Market. From 13 until 18, 19 they hate coming into the Market, because it’s just not cool to hang out with your parents, but then they come back married or with children, or whatever, and they go, “Oh you know, you used to give us,” especially to my parents, “You used to give us bananas. You used to peel our grapes for us,” blah, blah, and that’s kind of cool, you just don’t see that.
Leon with a customer’s baby; approximate date: mid 1990s
BARKER: Your mom mentioned that in her interview too, that people would come up to her and say, “I’ve shopped elsewhere and the bananas there aren’t as good as they are here.”
CALOMIRIS: Yeah. Many, many stories like that. People would wed. I think I have one—there was a couple that wanted my mom to—they did their wedding in front of the Market, and they wanted my mom to go out there and take pictures, stuff like that.
BARKER: When was this?
CALOMIRIS: I really couldn’t tell you the time, I’ve got a picture of one, of the bride and the groom outside of the Market, I got it posted on my thing [bulletin board]. There’s another one where Mom did the tangerine arrangement or something like that, and I think they have the picture of it, I’m not sure if they gave mom—I think they did give her one, I don’t know where she stashed it, all within the last ten years.
BARKER: So was there—it seems like there was this sort of real concern to keep the Market as it was. Were there any merchants who didn’t come back from the fire?
CALOMIRIS: No. Everybody was the same. Nobody quit. Nobody gave up on it and everybody is the same.
BARKER: As the Market was being rebuilt, what was the political situation like?
CALOMIRIS: Again, Mayor Fenty was, you know don’t get me wrong, I mean, not everything went perfect, but all in all, considering it’s a bureaucracy and I’m used to the bureaucracies that I’m used to, it was miraculous. Everything went smooth, as far as they promised—they were going to build a temporary place, they did. Did the building have issues? Yeah it did. But that’s not worth, again we had a home. Whereas I thought we weren’t going to have a home. I had a home, and then they—on time, they said it would be two years to build, to re-do the Market, roughly. I think they were one month behind, maybe. To me that’s miraculous. [laughs]
BARKER: Do you feel that you guys had input on the rebuilding process?
CALOMIRIS: That’s another—do you mean input as far as, hey, they would ask you—you definitely got your same exact spot back. So the same position you were in pre-fire, you were in after the fire, exactly, to the inch. Did we have enough input on other stuff? There are certain things we had issues with. I’m not going to lie to you. We wanted the windows tinted, because we’re selling food, and they ended up not being tinted, you know. The skylights are, but the side windows are not.
BARKER: What’s the issue?
CALOMIRIS: I think it’s again, this is again where you get to the point where a lot of people were in on it.
CALOMIRIS: It was something that would be more aesthetically pleasing versus functionally pleasing for the food, because we had issues with the Market prior to the fire with the sunlight coming in. There’s a reason why people used to put cardboard boxes up on their refrigerators, because the sunlight would come in and literally either cook or turn your food. So when they asked, “Well what do you want to do?” We’d be like—and you know they asked you, “tint?” We all said unanimously, “tint!” and they don’t have any tint, those are the kind of—yeah I’m not trying to nitpick—
CALOMIRIS: —because I am appreciative, but not everything went that smoothly when it comes to the actual setup of the—I asked for partitions for the water to drain properly, they didn’t do that. My personal note … little stuff, but quite a few little things, that I think could have been improved.
BARKER: So … seems like if this fire had happened in the 70s and 80s—
CALOMIRIS: We’d have been finished.
BARKER: So what—
CALOMIRIS: No doubt in my mind, we’d have been finished.
BARKER: So aside from the change in mayors, what happened with the—what do you think happened with the community between then and now that got this process really hammering along?
CALOMIRIS: Honestly, that’s where the mayor stands out, because we always had the community behind us. Never had a doubt in my mind that we had the community behind us, but I think what matters—that’s where they called his office and he actually said, “Gee I might do something about this.” I don’t know what set it off, but I’m pretty sure had that been—no disrespect, if that was Barry, “So what?” Take it down, put up a high-rise you’ll get ten times the amount of rent. I mean, let’s face it, it’s a nice piece of property and anybody would covet a block in the middle of Capitol Hill. They could have done a lot of things to make a lot of money. I don’t know, I mean honestly I don’t know why, maybe it’s because his parents had a shoe store and he felt sorry for us, or whatever, but you could tell that he cared. [ed: The Fenty family owns Fleet Feet, an athletic shoe store in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC.]
BARKER: So as the Market was being rebuilt, were you the one who was actually constructing the new stand?
CALOMIRIS: I did. I did all my …
BARKER: Were you trying to recreate the old stand?
BARKER: How did you—
CALOMIRIS: Pretty much so—
BARKER: How did you do that, did you have the old measurements, or … ?
CALOMIRIS: Yes and no, what I did was I made this one—there are certain things I did not like about my old stand, and the fact that, because we were in a temporary building it had to be modular it had to be something we could move easily from one place to the other.
CALOMIRIS: The first stand that I had was basically hodge-podge over 40 years. It was monstrous. If I had to put it on dollies and roll it, it would probably break in half. So when I went into the temporary building I knew I wanted something that looked somewhat similar to what we had first, but it had to be modular, easy to take apart, easy to carry, whatever. So I built it in sections. As far as the actual measurements to the display, I had a milk carton that I used to put stuff on top of and the first shelf was even to that milk carton pretty much. So, I still had a milk carton [laughs] and I’d use that for my base measurement, and then from there I just—okay, we have 16 feet, make three pieces like this, make it modular, which is pretty much what I did.
BARKER: You mentioned earlier that you had lost your antique cash register.
BARKER: Where did you get the one you have now?
CALOMIRIS: That’s a good story … what is it, seven years ago? Dad was always very good at picking up old junk. [laughs] Even if it was antique it didn’t mean that it was good!
CALOMIRIS: He loved junk. So we’ve had antique cash registers since I was a kid. Now, either through robbery, a couple were broken, because people were so lazy they wouldn’t punch these keys so they’d bust them open with a hammer to see if there’s money—
Leon’s mother Maria with the old cash register; approximate date: mid-late 1980s
CALOMIRIS: —and they’d ruin them. They were cute in the sense that they’re cool looking because nobody has them anymore, but as far as worth was concerned believe it or not they weren’t worth anything because they were all cast iron or broken or missing parts, or whatever. And dad loved—if someone was throwing one away, he’d take it. He loved these things. So seven or eight years ago the one that we lost in the fire broke. Not because of the fire, it just stopped working. So I told my mother, “Ma we need to get another register now because this thing’s broke,” and my Mom is used to it and she knows nothing of computers or electronics, so she told me it was out of the question to get a regular cash register. She didn’t want to deal with the programming it and the punching this and that and the other. I said, “Well what do you want me to do Ma, it’s not like I can pick up one of these things at the store.” And she’s like, “Well, go try to find it, try to find one.”
Okay? So I went on to eBay, and they had an antique register that was not in—it’s different from the one I have, still beautiful but different. It had two drawers and it had a crank, and it was actually older—1895, it was actually older than the one I have now. But it wasn’t working. But I bought it and I found a person in New York who restores them. I drove it up to New York and he restored it. Brought it back, put it in the Market, it was gorgeous. Mom didn’t like it because it had a crank. [laughs]
BARKER: [laughs] So now you have to get—
CALOMIRIS: And I spent all this money and—
BARKER: —another antique cash register?
CALOMIRIS: —all this time on this thing, and I love this thing. I have it in my house actually, the other thing, because Mom didn’t want it, and there’s no way I’m selling this thing, it’s got too much history behind it. So, I have it in my house. So I take the one that we had, and I said, “Okay, I’m going to try something.” So I take it into my basement, take it apart. Again, I’m relatively mechanically inclined. So I go in there and boom, I un-jam it. So I’m like, “Huh, okay, so now this thing works.” Took it back to the Market, she’s happy. Now it’s back, it’s working. Fire happens. It gets dented up, it’s got scorch marks, any glass on it was broken. Again, took it into my basement, believe it or not I got it to work. The problem is it just looked so awful. It smelled of crud because of all the stuff that went in it. The guy who I told about before who rebuilt my other one, the fancy one said, “don’t even waste my time.” He’s like, “I’m not going to restore that for you if you want it. Because it’s just not worth anything. I’ve got a lot of other registers here if you want them.” But he was up in New York, so I said, “well you know what, I’m not driving up to New York again.”
He’s like, “Well there’s a guy in Annapolis who restores.” Okay, I took his name. Sure enough, this man worked for NCR [National Cash Register] for 30 years prior to them going electric and he had a basement full. He must have had 400 registers down in his basement, all of them junk, but he spent his whole spare time in retirement fixing them. So he had this one that I’d just bought for sale and I said, “It works?” He said, “It works beautifully,” and I bought it.
BARKER: So there’s no—at this point is there any chance of going to the modern register or are you—
CALOMIRIS: No, not as long as they’re around no, no way. No way. We don’t even have calculators [both laugh]. We’re still running on, I don’t know if you know that, we add on bags still.
BARKER: Oh, really?
CALOMIRIS: Yes. We don’t like calculators
BARKER: Those math skills are—
CALOMIRIS: I can’t do any other math, but I can add like the wind.
BARKER: [laughs] Sounds like you guys got—once the Market was, the new building was open, you guys got set up pretty quick.
CALOMIRIS: Oh, yeah. The move was smooth, because, again all my stuff I made it to be modular. It wheeled right over. I’m fortunate in the Market sense, that I don’t have a lot of heavy equipment that I have to have.
BARKER: Like who—I mean who’s dealing with really heavy equipment?
CALOMIRIS: Most of the meat people, they have all their saws they have to have more electrical hook-ups than I do. The fish people, they need to have their garbage disposals in place, and stuff like that. So in that sense, I have it a little bit better. The downside was I had to build my own stuff—
CALOMIRIS: —which took me a long time. I had to do it piecemeal after work and stuff like that. So I spent a good couple, three months on that.
BARKER: So what was the re-opening like?
CALOMIRIS: Oh it was crazy, it was crazy … the opening for the present one, or the temporary?
BARKER: Yeah, well both. I mean when they re-opened the temporary one—what kind of expectations did you have going into that, that temporary building?
CALOMIRIS: It got hyped so much, we had so much publicity and stuff that I kind of knew it was going to be good. I didn’t know if people were going to shop more or come to see us more in the aspect of us being a museum, but I knew that there were going to be a lot of people. And again, the mayor and my mom got to be close.
CALOMIRIS: So my mother did the ribbon cutting for the temporary, and it was packed. He came in, he had the first sale, and there—
BARKER: This is the picture in the paper of him hugging your mother [indicating the newspaper on the table]?
CALOMIRIS: Yes. He had the first sale, and it was packed. Was it as packed as the grand opening for this one? No, this one was ridiculous, it was so bad that actually people were getting mad because they couldn’t shop. It was so busy that there they were coming in the one way through the north hall and going out the other way almost like we were doing an exhibit. And nobody could back up, nobody could shop it was actually a little much it was actually kind of annoying. But it was, no I mean, it’s nice to see that everybody wanted to see the place. Massive amounts of people all day long.
BARKER: So when you were in the temporary building were you seeing more traffic than you were seeing in the old Market?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, but you lost a few too. So all in all I’d say, because you had a lot of people who thought after the fire that there’s no way it’s going to come back, they started shopping elsewhere, you had people who, while we were set up outside, I guess, you had less stuff to buy.
CALOMIRIS: I don’t know if that made them mad, or if they just found someplace else, so you did lose some. But you gained—it broke even, honestly.
BARKER: This, sort of, hype on the opening day, how long did those huge crowds last?
CALOMIRIS: It lasted a while. Unfortunately it did taper, it did taper, but it probably lasted a good three, four months. Through a whole summer—I believe we opened around the Fourth of July, the Grand Opening I think it was the seventh of July, no I’m sorry a little bit before. July Fourth landed on a Saturday and I think we were open that Monday or Tuesday prior. So end of June, early July, we opened and it lasted the whole summer. [ed: the Market re-opening was on June 26, 2009]
BARKER: Wow, and was this crowd, I mean was this regulars or were you seeing people from all over the city?
CALOMIRIS: Both, we saw a lot of regulars and there were a lot of new people.
BARKER: So as you look at the new Market has it—you mentioned that all of the old merchants are sort of back where they were—has the Market changed since the fire?
CALOMIRIS: It’s toned down, it’s toned down a little bit.
BARKER: In what way?
CALOMIRIS: Business—I mean it’s a little slower now, I can’t figure why but it is a little—I think last year was probably a little bit busier. I don’t know if it’s because, again, the publicity, the novelty of it, but I think so far, and again, it’s too early to tell because the holidays aren’t here yet—
CALOMIRIS: —but it’s a little bit slower.
BARKER: Why do you think it’s slowed down post-fire?
CALOMIRIS: You mean overall?
CALOMIRIS: Or you mean—okay. I think—you know honestly, I’ll say in general things are slowing down because people tend to cook less. I think that families are smaller, I mean, I don’t think this is just us. I think if you have a restaurant now that’s the thing to have now, because honestly on Capitol Hill at least, I can’t say for the rest of the country, but I can tell you from Capitol Hill, on Eighth Street where all those places are, they’re packed all the time. That used to just not be the case, I just really think that people’s habits have changed. People tend to cook less.
BARKER: So you’re just not generally seeing that …
CALOMIRIS: Right I see people buying—I see families smaller, and people cooking less. They end up with smaller bags.
BARKER: Okay, so that’s the, sort of, in general as far as—
BARKER: —over the long term.
CALOMIRIS: Right, right.
BARKER: Okay, do you see any sort of big issues coming up around the bend?
CALOMIRIS: With the Market itself?
BARKER: Market itself and with Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables.
CALOMIRIS: With Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables I would say, if trends keep going, it’s going to be hard, because, again, it has—right now it has to support my brother and myself. It depends on what insurance is due, if you have to have more health insurance which has gone up and it’s harder to—I mean, it’s not like we set the world on fire—we make a living and I’m very happy. I’m not the kind of person who wants a lot, but if things keep trending like they’ve been trending, it’s going to be tough. Might either have to find another job that supplements or find something else to do. As of right now, it’s fine, so if things stay even right now I’m okay. If people, families get smaller, people start eating out more, people have more prepared foods—prepared foods kind of hurt you too, because I’m a fresh produce guy. So, I—like I said, I think the trend that hurts me the most is that people want everything ready, they want it fast, the world’s pace—the pace of peoples’ lives have picked up and that’s bad for me because it just means that they have less time to cook. More people are working longer, they want things ready, they want it now. Which, for people like me is not a good thing.
BARKER: Have you, or the other merchants tried to counter this, or tried to market yourselves in a different way?
CALOMIRIS: Some have, some have, but see there are also rules that we’re set up by. I have to sell produce, pretty much. I can’t go open up a restaurant right now. I can I guess, but then I would start another bag of worms when we have enough issues to deal with, and we’re just not at that point yet. I mean, I guess we could, or maybe we will but at this point we’re still trying to operate like we always have. There’s a couple produce people, a few meat people, we want to try to keep it that way and not get into some all-out war.
BARKER: So you’re, you’re sort of hampered by a license then?
CALOMIRIS: No, it’s not really a license it’s more of a personal choice you don’t want to get into that battle if you don’t have to have it.
BARKER: There’s a strong desire to keep the Market as it’s always been?
BARKER: Have you, I know some of the merchants have tried to get on the web, I know the cheese place [Bower’s Fancy Dairy Products] has got their own website. Have you thought about doing that at all?
CALOMIRIS: You know what for all my skills I’m computer illiterate, because of the way my family is, I’m not that good with that stuff. It wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt … but as of right now I guess, we’re kind of content, so …
BARKER: Well thank you very much for your time Mr. Calomiris.
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BARKER: This is an addendum to the interview with Leon Calomiris. It is about 10:50 on September the 28th in the basement of Coldwell Banker. We were talking briefly off-tape about what happened at the other markets, and I mentioned Georgetown [Market] is now a Dean and Deluca, and I know the K Street Market where your Dad started is that—that’s not around either is it?
CALOMIRIS: No, they actually condemned that for Federal Triangle, for federal buildings, but prior to that even, there was a fire at that—again I don’t have any memory of—that was prior to my birth, but it was two city blocks long, it kind of had the dome on it originally like Union Station did, from looking at pictures of it—
BARKER: Right, right
CALOMIRIS: —and in the dome was a bowling alley, the building was so big it had a bowling alley. They had a fire also, and then that burned the roof off of it, and then they fixed it, but they fixed it without the dome. So, I don’t know whether it was financing or whatever, but it was kind of shoddy, and then when Federal Triangle came up and they needed room, I suppose, they needed room for buildings, they just condemned it.
BARKER: Yeah … and so the Georgetown Market got turned into a Dean and Deluca—
BARKER: Which I know, a lot of people were really worried that that would happen here. That this market would be turned into sort of a boutique store. You mentioned that your dad was offered a position there?
CALOMIRIS: He was. I don’t know what led up to it, but a man—a gentleman came to my father interested in having my father open up a stand there. His—
BARKER: A separate stand, not part of the—
CALOMIRIS: A separate stand. At the time there was—Dean and Deluca wasn’t even in the picture at all, and literally the building was—when I saw it, I was—I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I imagine I was in my early teens. My father entertained the chance to go look at it, and basically when I went I remember us going to Georgetown, we parked in front of it and it was being torn down and rebuilt, and they kept the façade up. Apparently they were—the man was talking about how they were doing it brick by brick so they literally took, whatever, and numbered the bricks and put it back up.
My father was like, “very nice,” and they did a nice job, but when he showed my father the floor plans, because he showed my father plans, literally of how big his stall would be, and what would be done, and blah, blah, blah. It was very—my father did not even entertain it, because it just was too modern. It was nothing like my father—he didn’t like the floor plan, he didn’t like the fact that they wanted two floors in it. He didn’t like the stall size, he didn’t like the rent, which was outrageous.
BARKER: They wanted two floors for his stall?
CALOMIRIS: No, no no. For the whole—
BARKER: Oh, for the whole thing
CALOMIRIS: —for the whole thing. Yes, so basically the thing was still in its works. I have not been in it since, so I don’t know what they’ve done to it, but my father was instantly turned off. He’s like, “thank you but no,” and then I hear it went through some other—if I recall I don’t think Dean and Deluca was the only one. They were looking—first they had no interest, they were trying to find other people like my father to fill it, and obviously my father was not the only one who wasn’t interested, because I don’t think that that ever got very far, and then they had a couple of larger chains interested in it, and I’m not sure that Dean and Deluca was the first. If I recall I think maybe it was somebody else before them, but I’m not sure.
BARKER: Why do you think they weren’t able—I mean, why do you think they weren’t able to find enough people to fill the spots, because it is now, if you go there, the entire thing is essentially one big grocery store, and instead of merchant stands you’ve got different departments in that store.
CALOMIRIS: Same reason why mom and pops shut—the only way that you can make it in an area where you’re, I mean where the rents were probably that ridiculous was if you have large capital behind you, which is why mom and pop places have a hard time surviving anyplace. You’re just not—you’re not geared up for that. I don’t have investors.
CALOMIRIS: I don’t have the marketing—the name where you can put it out on TV and do advertising, or buying a front-page ad in the [Washington] Post or anything like that, it’s just not possible for people on our level to do that.
BARKER: Did your Dad ever entertain, maybe opening a satellite stand anywhere else?
CALOMIRIS: He’s been offered many times, even in our own market, because the produce stand in our market now changed hands three or four times, the other gentleman.
BARKER: Yeah, and what’s his name?
BARKER: Paik, yeah.
CALOMIRIS: We’ve never been like that, we just, we’re happy with what we had, we had our little family unit there, and remember—I think one of the big problems is when people expand they lose what makes them special to begin with. Yeah, you might make more money, but then eventually you’re going to have to hire people and the people you hire aren’t going to really care about your product or your service. It’s the same thing that happens over and over in different businesses. That’s why you don’t have hardware stores anymore—
CALOMIRIS: —that are personable, and you don’t have—and now you have Home Depot and Lowes, that’s it, you know? That’s part of the problem. We’re lucky we have Frager’s—that’s not true, we have—see one of the things that keeps this area so vibrant and so attractive to people—
CALOMIRIS: —is that there’s not enough room to put a Home Depot here.
CALOMIRIS: I mean honestly, it’s a special place in the sense that it’s still a neighborhood, but if there was room for a Lowes to come here or a super Safeway or whatever, it would definitely hurt us.
BARKER: So it’s just—it’s the nature of the neighborhood that sort of kept you guys alive?
CALOMIRIS: I think so. It’s an old-style neighborhood.
BARKER: Do you think if—let’s say theoretically—somehow maybe a Walmart was able to open in Capitol Hill, do you think your customers would stick by you?
CALOMIRIS: They would definitely stick by you, but, if a pie is only so big it can only accommodate so many slices. So every time you have an additional—like now you have your Harris Teeter and your—
CALOMIRIS: —Safeway and that. Well, does it affect you? Yeah it affects you, I’m not going to lie, it affects everybody. Even if you said, “Hey they got—you’re my good customer, and I buy my stuff from you, but this time I’m going to go buy a steak from them.” Well that’s a steak that you wouldn’t get in the Market, you know what I mean? So—and if you do that enough times it affects you because again we’re not working on massive volume. So, it’s just one piece of the pie less, so if you keep on taking the pieces away, you’re not going to have enough to sustain it—us, that is.
BARKER: Right, and has the community been vocal in keeping these big guys out, or is it really just the coincidence of the community that’s been keeping you guys safe? I mean it seems like—
CALOMIRIS: Both. I think a little of both.
CALOMIRIS: I think the community loves us, they want us here, they certainly haven’t been like, setting the world on fire, trying to get something here.
CALOMIRIS: And the fact that really, honestly if a big company wants to get into the Capitol Hill, number one they’re going to have to spend a lot of money to do it and number two they don’t have a whole lot of room. I don’t know if you know this but the building across the street used to be a Safeway.
CALOMIRIS: Yes. When I was growing up it was a Safeway, it was the worst Safeway you ever saw.
CALOMIRIS: It had, literally, like five rows in it, the service was horrible, the stuff was even worse.
BARKER: When did it close down?
CALOMIRIS: I want to say late 70s, early 80s. Yeah, and it was terrible, but even the few people at that would—it helped us a little bit in the sense that, I’m lucky because the produce there was so bad, nobody wanted it. It helped you in the sense that it had other goods that we don’t supply in the Market—
CALOMIRIS: —paper goods and stuff like, so in that sense it was kind of a plus.
BARKER: So people would go to the Safeway and then come to you?
CALOMIRIS: Right, but I’m imagining, hypothetically, if that were bigger and the lot was bigger and the building was prettier, then it would have not helped us. So I’m kind of—you have to be grateful that you’re downtown and there’s just not enough room for a Walmart. Walmart wouldn’t even come down here unless you gave it three blocks.
BARKER: Have you thought about where Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables is going to go when you hit your dad’s age?
CALOMIRIS: If I hit my dad’s age. [laughs]
BARKER: Let’s go for when, it’s a lot more positive. [laughs]
CALOMIRIS: Where’s it going to go? As long as I can maintain it—honestly, I love it. As much as I’ve complained about it, and stuff like that, it is who I am, and as long as it pays my bills I’m happy. If it gets to the point where it can’t, well, then I have to—you know, it becomes a necessity to do something else. As of this point, no, not near that yet. So, I’m very content. I just hope that … I hope it levels off—from what I remember us as a child, like I said, people would come in with five kids, and all of them would go home with a big shopping bag full of stuff. That’s not here anymore, and I don’t think—it’s nothing we did, it’s just that’s not, you know … .
BARKER: So is the neighborhood getting younger then?
CALOMIRIS: I don’t know that it’s getting younger, they’re having smaller families. It’s not so much the youth, I really do believe that you just have less people. I mean, you have the same amount of people but they don’t have the mouths to feed that they used to.
BARKER: Right. Is it just—
CALOMIRIS: —they’re getting smaller.
BARKER: —is more expensive to live here?
CALOMIRIS: It is expensive. If you—where we used to be was a dangerous place when I was growing up.
BARKER: This was in Silver Spring or here?
CALOMIRIS: No, no here—the Market used to be a relatively dangerous place. There weren’t as many people that were well off. They were a lot poorer than they are now, but they ate more. [laughs]
BARKER: When did you notice that changing, I guess the word is gentrifying? When did you notice that change really start happening in the neighborhood?
CALOMIRIS: Late 70s, early 80s.
BARKER: What do you think happened to make that change?
CALOMIRIS: What do I think happened? I would say—not to pat our back, but the Market for one thing became more attractive, whereas it was ready to be demolished. It became an attractive place, and the more attractive a place, the values of the houses go up, and then more people come in with money to buy the houses, that makes them go up.
CALOMIRIS: And then that spreads. I mean, I have friends who live on 13th Street who—they had open air drug markets in front of their house.
CALOMIRIS: Three blocks from the Market, four blocks from the Market, whatever. Okay? Now their houses are worth, you know—they paid two hundred grand for theirs let’s say, and now they’re worth a mil.
BARKER: Yeah, so it’s just the—
CALOMIRIS: That’s why, and again, it isn’t that you don’t—you want any folks that come as long as they’re good folks, you want them to come, but I think that the more people have money to spend on houses and stuff, the less they use on food. I don’t know why, because maybe they have money and they want to eat out and they don’t want to cook? That could be a possibility. All’s I know is on my end I just look at what people carry off, and I look more so that, you know, people used to just eat more fresh stuff. Could be that too, it could be people don’t want fresh food anymore, they want slop.
BARKER: Right, right.
CALOMIRIS: Which is why the country is getting a little heavy, but—[laughs]
BARKER: [laughs] How did you, when the crime in the area was really bad, how did you guys protect yourselves? How did you keep yourselves safe?
CALOMIRIS: You asked me why I was rough, well, because I fought a couple times. [laughs]
BARKER: [laughs] You had guys attack you?
CALOMIRIS: I’ve had a couple issues, especially younger … . I’m big enough now where they don’t mess with you as much, but when I was younger it was a little different.
BARKER: Did they, did you—
CALOMIRIS: People would try to steal. I have the—see one of the downsides of me having a produce stand, is I’d be easy fodder.
CALOMIRIS: It’s not a case separating you, you’re out in the open. You have an occasional shoplifter too, and the choices are two: you can let them shoplift and not say anything or you can try.
BARKER: Did you worry about your parents when they were—
CALOMIRIS: All the time—
BARKER: —coming down here?
CALOMIRIS: —I worried about them all the time. I did.
BARKER: Did they ever have any issues? I mean—
CALOMIRIS: Oh yes. Yeah, there was a shooting in the Market once.
BARKER: Really? When was that?
CALOMIRIS: Again, when I was a kid. Actually Mark Glasgow took a bullet in the gut.
BARKER: And he was one of the merchants?
BARKER: Where was—
CALOMIRIS: Somebody broke in at the end of the day, and actually I wasn’t there for that one but my parents were there, because they were closing up the shop. Somebody broke in and wanted his money, and I think they had a gun and he went for the gun, and they shot him, and they ran off.
BARKER: Was—are the Glasgows still—
CALOMIRIS: He’s dead actually, but he—not from that but his family’s still around, they still do meat and stuff.
BARKER: Yeah. Did your stand ever get robbed? Or did—
CALOMIRIS: All the time it did—
BARKER: —you have violence?
CALOMIRIS: —it did. Violence, yeah, but outside of my little confrontation I wouldn’t call it—I don’t know if you want to call it violence, maybe a fistfight or something like that—
CALOMIRIS: But nobody’s ever shot at me—
BARKER: Nobody ever pointed a gun at you?
CALOMIRIS: No. I think the worst thing that happened was Dad went to stop somebody, I think, at one point somebody nailed him with a razor, got him in the hand. That was about the worst, as far as that goes.
BARKER: So that’s, you—have you had anything like that in the last ten years?
CALOMIRIS: Ten? Yeah.
BARKER: Have you had anything like that recently?
CALOMIRIS: A couple of years ago was when [inaudible]—much less frequent now then when I was growing up, but occasionally you do get a drifter, occasionally you do get somebody during the holiday season where, even if there’s a lot of people who want to shop, they’ll want to grab something.
CALOMIRIS: It happens, I mean so—and it happens in the best of stores. If you go to Macy’s on Christmas, I’m sure you’ll see a lot like that too.
CALOMIRIS: The difference is that it’s my place. The difference is other places have video, you let them walk, you let them run, and you let the police do it. Unfortunately with me, I take it a little bit more personally, so I might get involved. The latest was … probably about a year ago, last summer. And that was because this was a belligerent person, this wasn’t even—didn’t have a whole lot to do with the food, he was just belligerent, mouthing off to one of the security people. Because, the Market used to have a cop that we used to—prior to the fire we had a cop that we used to pay. He was great, never had any issue when he was there, because he was to the point and nobody messed with him, and he was a real cop and, you know, Metropolitan Police. But he cost. When you have that kind of security you have to pay.
CALOMIRIS: This other one now was like … DC—he was a DC guy with a DC badge, but I don’t think he was a real police officer, more like a security guard.
BARKER: Okay. Private company?
CALOMIRIS: No, he was DC, but he was more for, like a little protective service, instead of an actual, you know, police, and apparently some guy was getting belligerent with him, and this was in front of my stand. I was just standing there, I wasn’t even—and he was mouthing off to the guy. So, I’m watching and I’m like, “Okay, you do have a gun and you do have a badge, throw him out.” Right? He wouldn’t, this guy was pretty good size. So then he came over and he started mouthing off to me, and he grabbed some of my stuff and he started eating it, right? And I’m waiting for the guy to do something [laughs], I’m like wait a minute. I’m like, “Hey dude”—and not in such a nice way, I’m like, “put them back, those aren’t yours.” So me and him ended up getting into—he took a swing at me, and then—at this point this was a scene [laughs] so he takes off, and another guy pushes him, and I go and I jump on him, and police came and he got me in the neck a little bit.
BARKER: Did you have any troubles when you were in the temporary building? It seems like—
CALOMIRIS: None. Would you believe that the temporary building was—I think it’s because of the way it was closed off on one end—
CALOMIRIS: —and the doors were more placed, differently they were—
BARKER: Less places to run?
CALOMIRIS: Right, it’d be a lot harder to get out of that place than it would be the Market.
BARKER: Do you guys, indoor merchants, do you guys sort of look out for each other on that score?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, especially if it’s something major. Obviously, we’re busy and not everybody is looking at everybody, but we wouldn’t let anything bad—if something really bad happened, I’m pretty sure people would get involved, or try to help or call somebody, or something.
BARKER: That’s good to know, I’m glad your situation’s improved there.
BARKER: When things were really bad, when you had drugs being traded outside the Market, and you had—you mentioned you had a police officer. Did the merchants themselves do anything as far as security, I mean, would you—as far as, closing the building at night, opening it up in the morning, getting ready, and tearing down, that kind of thing?
CALOMIRIS: Yes, prior to the fire, believe it or not we were in control of it.
BARKER: So it was the merchants themselves that were paying the police officer?
CALOMIRIS: No, that was a little bit different. The police officer was more weekends. He was more Saturdays only. He would take care of the parking and the security and the perimeter if we needed—Clay, we knew him.
CALOMIRIS: He’d give us his card, he’d come in and be like, “Whatever you need, call me.” Not at night. He would leave at three.
CALOMIRIS: Okay. One of us would usually lock up, like me, I’d lock up the doors for a long time, at least on my half of the building. Somebody else would do the other half of the building. We always had a custodian or somebody like that who would be in charge to make sure everybody left. But, it was hodge-podge, it wasn’t like—now we’re more managed, so now that OPM [DC Office of Property Management] runs the building they have more of a set guideline as to who opens it, but back then we were hodge-podge.
CALOMIRIS: As long as the building got locked up at 6:00, sometimes we’d leave at 6:15, and the Market was secured in different ways too. Because now code requires that the doors be—open out. Back then we had them chained shut, we had bars that were—so once you locked that bar, that’s it, there’s no way out.
BARKER: So you wouldn’t have all the doors open at one time.
CALOMIRIS: Right, right.
BARKER: That’s probably pretty smart.
CALOMIRIS: It’s smart but now you can’t do it because of fire code.
CALOMIRIS: Their theory is if you have a fire and people have to get out, how do they get out?
BARKER: So do you feel that the guys who are there now are doing as a good a job as the merchants were when they were handling their own business?
CALOMIRIS: [sighs] In some aspects yes, in some aspects no. Security no, for sure. That’s another one of those little issues, I would have preferably wanted more cameras in the Market than are there now. They have four cameras in there now and they’re not really pointed in the right direction, and nobody knows how to use them if we needed to, so [laughs] they’re kind of moot.
CALOMIRIS: There are a lot of little issues that should be worked out, that we’re in the process of—hopefully that we’re in the process of working out. I mean, this is all new to a lot of people because for the most amount of years you had one person managing, then we had a management company that did it for a couple of years, and they got booted. Now the city itself has their own—and they’re not in—they don’t like doing it, but they’re managing the building right now.
BARKER: And they’re—they’re managing it through EMCAC?
CALOMIRIS: No. OPM is managing it. EMCAC has nothing to do with it—
BARKER: EMCAC is—
CALOMIRIS: OPM, the Office of Property Management, which is a direct city organization—
CALOMIRIS: —manages it,. And they’re kind of new at the Market too, believe it or not. They don’t know what we need and what we don’t need. They’re open to ideas, but, so far there’s a few things that have not been—that we disagree with.
BARKER: What have they done well?
CALOMIRIS: [long pause] Well, they answer calls …
BARKER: So you have a phone tree now?
CALOMIRIS: [laughs] What do they do well? They advertise okay… well, they’ve been good about not bumping up our rents.
BARKER: Well that’s good. How’s the rent situation been?
CALOMIRIS: So far good. Honestly, on that I have no complaints. They’ve pretty much been the same, since the fire.
BARKER: Since the fire?
BARKER: Did you ever have problems with them prior to that, because—your father mentioned that there was all kinds of—there was a while there where he thought that they were actively trying to shut you down.
CALOMIRIS: Yeah, it was worse, for sure. See OPM they’re not in the business of trying to make money, they’re just trying to run the building—
CALOMIRIS: —now whether they got the right people to run the people or not, I have a few issues with their maintenance people, again this is—I don’t want to say petty, because it does mean something, but it’s not life or death, they haven’t done—
BARKER: Sure, sure.
CALOMIRIS: —anything detrimental to me, or to the business. If I have an issue—the doors don’t lock, and they then send the city’s maintenance guys and some of them know what they’re doing, some of them don’t. And they put a wrong lock or something like that.
CALOMIRIS: That’s my gripe, pretty much with them. As far as doing something bad, no, they haven’t tried to kick us out. When you ask them—if the air conditionings not working they’ll send people in to fix it. The fans aren’t running? They’ll run them. Now, stuff might break more often then we’d like, because of again, it is a bureaucracy and they do—I think they have a communication problem between them and other organizations. PEPCO, for example, we had the power go out a little while ago. And the power never went out in the Market, I mean all the lines are pretty much underground. But when they built the building, they didn’t supply the building with enough power. Because now they have new A.C. units and they need all this new equipment and all this, it draws more power.
CALOMIRIS: Well, they never upgraded the set-up from the lines to the Market so it kept blowing fuses out on the street, okay? Well that’s a communication issue. PEPCO says they didn’t tell us, the city says, no, we did you just didn’t do it. You know what I mean? But nonetheless my power went out and I lost what was in my cooler, okay, that kind of thing. It happens, I’m not going to, again I don’t want to say, “Gee they’re ignorant,” because I don’t know who to blame [laughs]. It’s like—
BARKER: [laughs] Right yeah. So it’s dealing with the bureaucracy then that’s—
CALOMIRIS: Yes, that’s still an issue. That’s still a major issue, and the East—honestly I don’t think they really want to run, that’s not—they’re not in the job of managing buildings. There’s legislation in place just for the Market, which is a rare thing. It doesn’t happen. There’s actual laws that govern the Market, and the laws say they want a management company. So we’ve tried management companies and they’ve been pretty bad. See, so what they’re trying to do is find somebody who will manage it, and manage it well, but in the interim, what do you do?
CALOMIRIS: So what have they done—again getting back to what have they done good, all things considered they haven’t done a god-awful job. Now, are there improvements to be made? Yeah, I think they need better maintenance, I think if you have a problem with—an electrical problem you should call an electrician, not a maintenance guy. Plumber, same thing. I mean, in that respect. The rents they’ve kept good, they haven’t been mean to us, they haven’t come and said, “We want you out of here.” Which I imagine, it is a city building, and we don’t have a lease, so the reality of it is, if they really wanted to get rid of you—we wouldn’t go quietly, but there’s arguments to be made that they can.
BARKER: Right. So sounds like it’s kind of a balance then.
BARKER: You’re trying to get yourself heard and you’ve got the bureaucracy on one side and people in the middle.
BARKER: Thank you for that.
BARKER: It’s very helpful.