A local life: Chris Calomiris, 86, the face of D.C.'s Eastern Market

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 9:29 PM

If there were such a position as "dean of vendors and merchants" at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, if there were such a job title as "face of the market," if the market had a "keeper of memories," they could all have been filled by Chris Calomiris, who died Jan. 29 at 86.

For almost a half-century, Mr. Calomiris, his wife, Maria, and, at times, his children ran a fresh fruit and produce stand smack in the center of the cavernous main hall of the market, which is not only a food emporium but an unofficial community center and the heart and soul of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

From his central location, across from a meat stand, between a cheese stand and a poultry stand, Mr. Calomiris dispensed peppers, carrots, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, berries, bananas, grapes, smiles and good wishes to thousands of customers every week. He knew many of them by name and even more by sight.

To walk from one end of the market to the other, you had to pass by Mr. Calomiris, a man of small stature with thinning white hair, a gentle demeanor and a reticent smile.

If you looked carefully, you might see him slip an extra tangerine, a banana or a date into someone's grocery bag. If you were around early in the morning, you might catch him surreptitiously depositing an apple or a pear in the jacket hood of a youngster walking to school.

In terms of longevity, he was the senior merchant, or close to it, among the independent vendors whose food stalls line the walls and aisles of the vintage 19th-century market.

Mr. Calomiris could not match the prices charged at Costco or Shoppers Food Warehouse, and there was usually a shinier polish on the apples and eggplant at Whole Foods.

But for Capitol Hill residents, it was hard to beat the convenience and accessibility of Eastern Market, at Seventh Street and North Carolina Avenue SE, where the hassles of traffic and parking did not apply to the predominantly pedestrian clientele.

It was even harder to match the sense of personal service and community that came with purchases of fruit and produce from Mr. Calomiris and his family.

"The Calomirises are what you think of when you think of the market," said Bonny Wolf, a food commentator for National Public Radio and cookbook author who lives within a few blocks of Eastern Market. It was easy, Wolf said, to "roll out of bed, walk over and buy a lemon."

But that wasn't the primary reason she shopped at the Calomirises' stand. "I went because of them," she said. "They knew your name, and they knew your children. It was a social thing."

In the autumn of 2001, Wolf did a 10-hour interview over two days with Calomiris for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. He essentially told her his life story.

Chris Calomiris was born in Washington on Nov. 14, 1924, the son of Greek immigrants from Sparta. He grew up with his parents, cousins, an aunt and an uncle in a household on First Street NE.

A twin brother died when he was a year and a half old.

Mr. Calomiris recalled pickup football games in which he played as a youngster on a grassy space overlooked by the vice president's office.

Sometimes, he said, John Nance Garner, vice president in the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, would step out on a little balcony to watch. "We would throw the football up to him," Mr. Calomiris said. "He'd catch the ball and throw it back to us."

Mr. Calomiris attended Chamberlain Vocational High School, then served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he attended Eastern High School and Central High School and joined his father, Thomas, in a produce business that the elder Calomiris had begun with a pushcart. They operated out of the Center Market in Northwest Washington until it closed, then relocated to Eastern Market in 1963.

Mr. Calomiris worked long hours, rising at 3 a.m. five or six days a week and returning home at 7 or 7:30 p.m. He did not take a vacation until he was 76, according to his son, Leonidas "Leon" Calomiris.

That was when he journeyed to Greece to visit relatives. Other than his Army experience, it was his first trip outside the United States.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Maria Vissas Calomiris of Chevy Chase; three children, Leonidas Calomiris and Zoy Krouskas, both of Bethesda, and Thomas Calomiris of Chevy Chase; a brother, James Calomiris of Silver Spring; and five grandchildren.

Over the years, his clientele in some instances passed from one generation to the next. Stephanie Deutsch, who lives four blocks from the market, was among his second-generation customers.

"On more than one occasion, Chris Calomiris looked me in the eye and said, 'I remember your mama,' " said Deutsch, whose mother was Anne Crutcher, a former editor and food writer with the Washington Star and the Washington Daily News.

Many times, Deutsch recalled, a shopping excursion to the Calomiris stand resulted in gifts of baklava and spanakopita, in addition to the purchase of fruit and vegetables.

Entering his 80s, Mr. Calomiris began to slow down. Cancer kept him away from his stand for about three years, but he returned to work on a less-taxing schedule.

His last day on the job was Jan. 23, six days before he died of gastric cancer at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District.

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