Michelle Gambino stands in front of the South Philadelphia Italian Market Visitors Center. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO
On Jan. 1, the South Ninth Street Business Association took control of its famed, outdoor rows of wooden stands from City Council who passed legislation transferring management from Philly government to those administrating the Italian Market.
“We’re excited to have our Market’s fate in our hands,” said Emilio Mignucci, the VP of DiBruno Bros’ cheese-and-charcuterie salon in the Market for 75 years.
Now, six months later, responsibility means the Association and its business manager Michelle Gambino — rather than the city — must make stand operators pay annual stall fees ($300 for a 10 x 3 foot space) and Association dues ($200) while keeping the Market clean and up to code.
Gambino states the Association is a “landlord” to its vendors, nearly 70 stalls currently running between Christian Street and Washington Avenue. Though the Italian Market ends at Federal, and the number of stall spaces on both sides of Washington tops off at 160 (including several for upcoming green spaces and seating areas), “you have to start somewhere,” she said of her primary goal of revitalizing the main drag and filling the number of empty or dilapidated stalls with merchants offering services different, yet complimentary, to what the Market offers.
Its first and only new stall since calling for vendors is Dorrie Gilbert’s Ginger Snap's Grocery.
“We used social media to look for like-minds, food obviously, home goods too,” said Gambino, who initially received 50 applications. “We also want artisans like we get during our Italian Market Festival for a unique, recognizable shopping experience.”
The word “recognizable” stands out as Gambino must play both sides of an old coin — keeping the Market steeped in tradition, but making it competitively modern. She laughs about older vendors who “want to work, go home, and aren’t interested in being a community."
"However," she adds, "this is definitely a community-minded project, so we’re trying to ease them in, and let them know it’s not terrible.”
Gambino spoke of several classification of stalls: those paid and actively worked; paid but untended to daily; stands unpaid that the Association now owns and must fill; and stands whose monies aren’t delinquent but have granted the Association permission to fill.
Gambino’s “prototype” started right before the program turned six months old, and Dorrie Gilbert is fine with the process, so far. Gilbert, a teacher who got caught in the cold of the Philly school district’s 2008 hiring freeze, sought to work near her Moyamensing Avenue home, and achieve her secondary goal — a small organic grocery with a farmers’ market feel. “My Ginger Snap stall is that concept boiled-down to its essentials,” she said.
Gilbert said the Association has been welcoming, though several vendors have not. “There’s an old school mentality existing here, so there’s been some resistance, but nothing derogatory,” she said, laughing. “They’re probably suspicious of the newcomer. Look, I’m new and selling a product that’s organic and local at a price point that’s a little higher than what’s found traditionally in the Market. Then again, the Market is changing in terms of clientele. There are people who want products that aren’t dirt cheap, of a different quality.”
Though she had logistical issues (no one rented her space along the block for her refrigerator, “opting to keep vacant spaces empty, which is bizarre”), and she’s still waiting for awnings (“umbrellas don’t work in heavy rain”), Gilbert is so enthused about her first month’s sales and retinue of regulars, she’s making plans for a “brick-and-mortar storefront offering dairy items and prepared food” to go with her stall.
“I’d love new neighbors and it’s going to take effort to recruit the vendors they want,” said Gilbert, “but the Italian Market could be a more vibrant shopping corridor. It just needs variety and new blood.”
Gambino jokes about how the original documents defining the Italian Market’s stretch goes back to “paperwork written up in 1907,” with Pat’s and Geno’s helping to redefine its boundaries within the last 50 years.
“The Market’s curb stands used to stretch farther, from Wharton to Fitzwater, and the Market is still technically listed that way, but we use Federal to Christian as its commercial corridor,” she said.
In reality, the South Ninth Street Italian Market started in the mid-to-late 1880s when Antonio Palumbo opened a boarding house in the same neighborhood for fellow immigrant Italians. In October 2007, the Northeast corner of Ninth and Christian received a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker reading “South 9th Street Curb Market” to reflect the block’s shift in ethnicities to include Mexican, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese vendors.