For a man whose world was the size of a modest living room, Christopher Calomiris lived a big life.
From the produce stall in the center of Eastern Market, Calomiris spent more than 50 years filling thousands of customers’ grocery bags with fruits and vegetables, usually throwing in a gratis banana — and always, a smile.
He died on Saturday of cancer at the age of 86.
On Sunday, the stall was closed, and a handwritten sign reading “In Loving Memory” was posted above a snapshot of Calomiris. On the empty shelves, customers left notes, flowers, and, in a tribute to Calomiris’ signature, a lone banana.
On Tuesday, it was back in business, with Calomiris’ sons, Tom and Leon, getting hugs and condolences from a stream of customers.
“Pop wouldn’t have liked that,” Tom says with a slight smile, of the family’s decision to close up shop for a day. “I could almost see him frowning at us. But we needed some time.”
Chris Calomiris and his wife, Maria, were the most recognizable fixtures of the market. Maria is known simply as “Mama” to many of the other vendors and generations of customers. Calomiris, though the quieter of the two, was as much a part of the market as its soaring windows and familiar hum of voices.
His sons, vendors and customers describe Calomiris as a kind, gentle man who relished hard work and the people who came with it.
Chris retired several years ago, but he couldn’t resist coming back to check up on the business. He worked most weekends, tallying bills by hand on customers’ paper bags and doling out bananas to children. “He wanted to make sure we were getting the best quality, still treating people nice,” Tom says. “All his life, he never took vacations, he just worked for us, for the family.”
Many customers knew of his bout with gastric cancer five years ago, but his death came as a surprise to most, who seemed to expect to see him — as they had most weekends — perched behind the counter, wearing an apron.
“Eastern Market is the heart of Capitol Hill, and the Calomiris family is the heart of Eastern Market,” said Judi Seiden, a real estate agent and Hill resident who stopped by the stall on Sunday to leave a condolence note. “What a terrible loss.”
Another mourner was John Hall, who has lived on Capitol Hill for 26 years and has been buying produce from the Calomiris family for most of that time. He says customers have watched the Calomiris children grow up. “He always had a smile and such a gentle demeanor,” Hall recalls.
Calomiris represented Eastern Market’s old guard, a disappearing generation of purveyors who have seen Eastern Market grow from a food-only business centered in the large brick building to a sprawling flea market that often resembles a street fair.
Chad Glasgow has seen the changes, too. Glasgow, 62, is the second-generation owner of Southern Maryland Seafood, one of the original Eastern Market merchants that now is located across the hall from the Calomiris’ stand. “He was a real gentleman, and this is the end of an era for this market,” he says. “The oral history of this place is slowly disappearing with all the old fellas.”
“I guess that makes me the oldest guy here,” says Ray Bowers, who at 78 is still running Bowers Cheese, the dairy stall that has abutted the Calomiris’ stand for more than 50 years. “We all wait our turn.”
Calomiris’ life reads like a textbook example of the American dream, woven with long-lost Washington landmarks: Born to Greek immigrants in Northeast Capitol Hill, he grew up in a home on the site where the Senate office buildings now sit. As a kid, he joined his father’s produce business at Center Market, then a bustling food market on the site now occupied by the National Archives.
When that market was razed, the father-son duo moved to the New Center Market at 5th and K streets Northwest, and finally joined a group of merchants called the “Cen-East” cooperative that re-located to Eastern Market in the early ’60s.
That’s where the business has remained, in about the same spot — except, of course, when the market temporarily relocated across the street following the fire in 2007. Maria and Chris’ children, Tom, Leon and daughter Zoy, all worked at the market, although Zoy is now a teacher at Bethesda Elementary School.
The couple has five grandchildren: Zoy’s three children and Tom’s two stepchildren.
Now, Calomiris is quite literally an Eastern Market landmark. A sign across from the brick building depicting the market’s history features a large black-and-white photo of him. Taken in 1978, the picture shows him trimmer and with a little more hair than passers-by might recognize from recent years. But he exists in the frame the way he is remembered: an apron tied around his waist, arranging fruit under the stall’s familiar sign with its old-fashioned lettering. He is working.
A viewing is scheduled for Sunday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Joseph Gawler’s Sons Funeral Home in Chevy Chase, followed by a Monday burial. The family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.