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Old World ways are under fire at the West Side Market.

Merchants hope to see Tenants Association members put their heads together to bring about improvements. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Merchants hope to see Tenants Association members put their heads together to bring about improvements.

It's 8:30 on a Friday morning, and already the West Side Market is a jumble of activity. The 87-year-old produce and meat market is Cleveland's closest experience to an authentic European market or even Jerusalem's Old City, with a mix of suburban pilgrims and older women in babushkas maneuvering past each other in the crowded outdoor aisles. In bursts of English, Spanish, and a rich variety of European languages, they haggle over prices, suspiciously eye strawberries, and pinch broccoli florets.

Inside, under a tower as distinctive as any Cleveland landmark, vendors preside over display cases filled with a seemingly endless selection of meats, cheeses, and spices. Chicken and pork are available at cut-rate prices, as are hogs' heads and rabbit and even walleye, plucked out of Lake Erie that morning. Shoppers can eat their way through elaborate pastries or buy bratwurst-and-sauerkraut sandwiches for less than two bucks.

But amid all the Old World charm and culinary treats is a growing sense of discontent. A number of vendors believe that, if a few changes aren't made, this civic treasure will no longer be a pleasant anachronism. It will be completely outdated and, eventually, out of business.

"We don't have carts, we don't have air conditioning, we don't have heating," says Gary Thomas, who operates the Ohio City Pasta stand at the market. "It's almost a little too Old World."

Newer merchants like Thomas complain that the longstanding United West Side Market Tenants Association is run by a closed-minded old guard resistant to change. The upstarts have a list of changes — some simple, some more involved — that they say could modernize the market without sacrificing its character. The changing demographics of the market's customers is proof enough, they say, that, as the world changes, so too should the market.

"You can go to Dave's [Supermarket] across the street and shop in cleanliness and air conditioning, and have a little cart," says Gretta McGuire, proprietress of the Wendt's Dairy stand. "Suburbanites who come over here don't know what to expect."

Like many vendors interviewed for this story, Thomas and McGuire can recite a laundry list of fixes they would like to see. Some, like air conditioning for the indoor portion of the market, would be nice but, practically speaking, are a long way from happening. Other, more simple changes — like the oft-cited shopping carts, extended hours, and increased cleanliness and marketing — seem easy and obvious.

"Why do we close at 4 p.m. on Wednesday?" Thomas asks. "Downtown is leaving work at 4:30, and we're putting a lock on our doors, saying, "No, sorry, we really don't want you to stop here, going over the [Lorain-Carnegie] bridge or to Jacobs Field. We want to get home.'"

Thomas would also like to see the market open on Sundays. (Currently, the market is open only four days a week — Monday and Wednesday, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) "I've been to a lot of similar markets, and Sunday is their second-biggest day," he says, dismissing the notion that expanded weekend hours would change the focus from food to family entertainment.

"Everybody is worried we're going to be a tourist stop, but our biggest day is [already] Saturday," he says. "We're a tourist attraction, whether we like it or not. People come from all over. They come down [because] they used to come down when they were a kid, and that's their inexpensive little family field trip."

Standing under a sign proclaiming "This is hog heaven," Tony Pinzone has a different view of the market. The 42-year-old owner and proprietor of Pinzone's Meats has been working at the West Side Market since he was twelve and serves as vice president of the Tenants Association. He is skeptical of the newer vendors' "nouveau thinking."

"We're one of the last surviving true food markets in the country," Pinzone says. "Sometimes it's cute and trendy to have a place where you can sip wine and taste cheese. But this is the last of its kind, and that's why we've survived so long. Some people don't understand the market."

Pinzone says he welcomes the nontraditional businesses that have sprouted up in recent years, such as Ohio City Pasta, Great Harvest Bread Co., and City Roast, a gourmet coffee stand. But he is convinced that, if the market strays from its core mission — selling produce, meat, and other goods at discount prices — it runs the risk of becoming a glorified flea market, as has happened at other markets.

In that sense, he compares the West Side Market to the Aldi chain stores. "They sell certain things at really good discount prices at certain hours," he says. "They've carved a niche and do well at it. We're very similar."

McGuire believes that niche can be expanded and taken upscale. "We want to get the people that want new stuff, that don't ask, "Well, how much is that?'" she says. "We want new blood, because it's not the Old World anymore. To do that, we need to bring in new ideas and new things and new niches. The old stuff is always going to be here."

On one point both sides agree: The strength of the market is the personal contact and familiarity too often absent from contemporary stores. "Most of the customers can walk in, look at a stand, and point out the owner," Pinzone says.

"There's a personalized attention," agrees Thomas. "You come down here, you talk to the butcher. Grocery stores are kind of getting away from that."

But he remains convinced the market can have it both ways. "I just feel that, with respect to tradition and the past, there's still room to bring it a little up-to-date."

Mike Tobin can be reached at mtobin@clevescene.com.

More by Mike Tobin

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