West Side Market Reopens After Fire

This second part of a two-part series on the West Side Market takes readers inside the main building at the start of business hours.

Matan Zeimer

When you step into the main building of the West Side Market, which houses close to 80 vendors, you step into one of Cleveland’s main cultural centers. Warmly colored tiles cover every part of the indoor market. The stalls are close to 15 feet tall, but the market’s ceiling arches way above them. Light falls from the curved ceiling. Lamps craning over the aisles are adorned with historical photographs documenting events dating to the construction of the building in 1908. It is hard to believe that the scene here would have looked much different in 1912 when the market first opened for business.

The market reopened on Monday after closing for 19 days due to an electrical fire — the longest closure since its opening. The building was quickly deemed structurally sound, but cleanup crews had to remove large amounts of soot from the indoor market space. The two stands that caught fire on the morning of January 30 have yet to be replaced. Now more than ever, after being extensively cleaned, the market resembles its original look from 100 years ago.

The clack, clack, clack of delivery carts rattling over tiles is the constant soundtrack of the early morning hours. Box after box of meat, cheese, bread and other goods are brought into the market as the delivery carts weave around the stands. Occasionally the enormous building falls relatively quiet, save for the echoing voices and laughter of the vendors preparing their inventory.

From an indoor balcony on the south side of the building you can peer down at the bustling people at stands and in the gridded aisles. As you eat a crêpe from Crêpes De Luxe or enjoy one of the many other breakfast choices, you can watch the bakery employees unpack boxes and fill their display cases with heavily frosted cakes and overly stuffed cream pies, while butchers saw at large pieces of meat, so fresh it looks as if the animals were slaughtered that morning.

The employees of Classic Seafood, which sits just under the balcony, are laying out freshly unpacked fish. Richard Walker, one of the employees and a former staff photographer at a greeting card company, is placing a tray of blowfish tails in the display case. He has tried every kind of fish they sell.

“I admire the whole concept of the market — kind of anti-establishment that serves good quality meat to customers who like to cook,” said Walker.

As a local news team interviewed a vendor, three women huddled nearby checking their phones and looking through a folder. Amanda Dempsey, Virginia Houston and Zoe Adams are all from Ohio City Inc., the neighborhood development corporation. They work in partnership with the West Side market, and last year they were in charge of organizing the four centennial celebration events for the market.

Adams is the events and marketing coordinator for the neighborhood corporation.

“In today’s world where it’s so easy to get a chicken sandwich that you know nothing about, … it’s just really cool that this was able to last, and it’s so celebrated,” she said.

Dempsey, the market district director, said, “I think [that] keeping that kind of tradition and also authentic marketplace is really unique and important to Cleveland.”

Among the busy vendors and slow moving early-bird customers is a small older woman with wavy white hair. Trudy Lauber, who is peering into the display case of a poultry stand, has been coming to the West Side Market for 50 years.

“At that time you didn’t have your big chains, you know, like Giant Eagle and all that,” said Lauber of the time she started shopping at the market, “At that time we had bread delivered to the house, and milk delivered to the house, but we came here for produce and meat.” She explained that despite minor adjustments, the market itself has not changed very much. Regarding the vendors, she said, “Most of them have left, especially out in the produce, but some of the old-timers are still here.”

Even some of the younger customers have memories going back many years. Ashley Bezosky and John Moldovan, both 31, have been coming to the market for about 15 years.

“Sometimes you have to wait in line to get to [a vendor], [but] I wouldn’t just walk next door and choose another one because I had to wait,” said Bezosky.

Some stands attract more customers than others, and many shoppers say that it only takes one good experience to commit to a butcher, baker or other vendor. Getting an early start at the market helps ensure little to no lines at any of the stands, except City Roast Coffee and Tea, which fulfills the caffeine needs of merchants and customers alike.

When you finally leave the market, you’ll see a consistent flow of customers trickling in through the doors with their folding hand-carts rolling at their heels. During a normal week the market will be reaching its peak capacity around noon, but following the lengthy closure large crowds are anticipated to fill the building early. “We anticipate this Friday and Saturday to be really busy now that there is more awareness,” said Dempsey.

In the wake of the fire and the enormous costs for vendors to replace their inventory, the local community came to the market’s aid with fundraising campaigns and donations.

“The silver lining of the fire is that everyone, in some respect, is getting a fresh start, and there is a renewed awareness of the market,” said Dempsey in a follow-up interview. “Everyone seems to be in really good spirits. They’re all just happy to see the place back in business. There are returning shoppers who have been waiting for the reopening and new customers who had never been to the market before.”