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Eastern Market: Two Families Lose A Home

While Eastern Market burned this morning, Jose Canales was asleep in his bed in Silver Spring. But as his wife says, that house is not his home; only his stall at the Market on Capitol Hill fits that definition.

Monday is the only morning of the week when the merchants who own the food stalls at the Capitol Hill market get to sleep past 4 a.m. Canales, who has owned the Canales Deli inside the market for 24 years, is usually at his shop from 5:30 a.m. until 9 in the evening.

"He lives here," says his wife, Consuelo Canales. "This is where he feels his life, on Capitol Hill. Our home in Silver Spring is just to sleep."

Canales's story is typical of the families who run the stalls that sell meats, produce, cheese, fish, baked goods and crabcakes inside the Market. He came to this country from El Salvador, worked construction for a while and got a chance to invest in a stall at the Market. He bought the deli, and then when another stall became available, his brother bought that one, and then another brother bought a third stall, and now the trio runs the deli, a grocery and Canales Quality Meat.

"All of our cousins come," says Elizabeth Canales, 27, a teacher in the Montgomery County schools who grew up inside Eastern Market. "Since I was eight, Fridays after school, you go to work. Saturday, you go to work. I still work here summers." Now, with a baby on the way, her plan remains what it has always been: "You come back here. It's a true family business."

Not ten hours before the fire broke out, Jose Canales was locking up his restaurant across the street from the market, Tortilla Cafe, on 7th Street SE. Canales has four workers inside the Market, including one who has worked there for thirty years.

After 24 years at the Market, the Canales family has amassed some seniority, but they're still newbies compared to the Calomiris family, a Greek clan that is in its third generation of running a grocery in the grand old hall.

Leon Calomiris, who now runs the shop, recalled for me today the family story, about how his grandfather arrived in this country and found work as a vendor outside the old Central Market, which was downtown, where today's Federal Triangle stands. The Calomiris family has seen fire before; they were burned out of the Central Market and moved their business to Eastern Market in 1962. Until yesterday, Leon, 40, worked the stand with his brother, mother, a couple of full-time employees and a few more part-timers.

Leon's father, Chris, retired from the stall last year because of an illness, but at 82, he was outside the Market this morning, staring at the smoking guts of the building, determined to rebuild.

"I saw half the roof collapsed on my stand," says Leon Calomiris. "The initial shock hurts because you're looking at the place you've know all your life. But we've built that stand a couple of times over." In fact, Leon was inside the closed market hall Sunday evening, installing new portions of his stall's front--big wooden sections to replace the worn old stand. He built the parts at home in Bethesda and brought them in Sunday night.

"I can't close for more than one day"--the Market is generally closed only on Mondays--"so I have to build it one part at a time. After work yesterday, I cut the old modules off and installed two new ones. They looked good, too."

Leon has worked the stall for as long as he can remember, except for a few years in the late 1980s when he got a job as a mechanic. "Because we're all family, we all think we're going to do something else," he says. "Then you go out into the world and you have all the same stress, but you're not doing it for the family."

So he came back. He plans to return and stay: "I'll keep it going as long as I'm alive."

And with that, he got his turn to enter the Market, now a dangerous mess of twisted metal, charred wood and deep puddles. He went in search of a 1942 cash register and some family photos. The old register was a piece of history, and it would be great if he could save it, but if not, that would be ok too, because, Leon says, "I've got a really nice one at home, for when we rebuild."

To help the merchants and their workers get through the time before the Market is rebuilt, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation is setting up a fund. To donate or get more information, visit their web site.

By Marc Fisher |  April 30, 2007; 3:21 PM ET
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I'm sick to learn of the Eastern Market fire. My family lived on Cap. Hill for twelve years and Eastern Market holds so many of our fondest memories. We pulled out a photo album last night to look at pictures of our favorite Eastern Market vendors. Of course, the hardest thing about leaving DC was leaving our Eastern Market friends. We were saddened when learned that Mary of Market Lunch had passed away over a year ago. It was hard to get a smile our of Mary or the General...but my three year old daughter could bring the line to a stand still and instant smiles to all while she visited with her Market Lunch friends. Our prayers and hopes of a speedy rebuild go to DC, the Chicken Man, the Canales, the Cheese Lady and the Calmoris family.

P.S. I'd give up a finger (or a toe) for some of that applewood bacon from Union Meat right now.

Posted by: Paula Swain - Houston | May 1, 2007 10:23 AM

It is a terrible shock to read about Eastern Market. Just to clarify some history---Adoplph Cluss' original Central Market at 7th and PA Ave was demolished in 1931 to clear the Archives site. Shortly thereafter, the Northern Liberties Market at 5th and K NW began calling itself "The New Center Market". This market had a devastating fire in 1946 that destroyed the upper floors, but the lower story stood until the early 1980s and served for a brief time as "the wax museum".

I have pictures of all these buildings on my "Victorian Secrets of Washington,DC" website at

Posted by: Peter | May 1, 2007 11:33 AM

So sad. I went there on Sunday - it was a perfect day. I was in the area for hours. Then to hear this - it's so shocking.

Posted by: Darren | May 2, 2007 10:12 AM

I liked the Eastern Market a shred of the history of DC, my place of Love :-). I hope very much it will be rebuild again...

Posted by: TiiaV | May 2, 2007 1:54 PM

How about the O Street Market. Oh that's right that's where all the black and gay folks live they don't need a market. How about the city gives the same amount of money to both projects, not just the one for rich white folks to buy stuff

Posted by: Shaw, DC | May 2, 2007 3:42 PM

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