Brett Nunnally switched off the 1952 neon sign above the Nunnally Bros. Choice Meats stall at the Cross Street Market this week and shut down his refrigerator cases.
He’s leaving the spot where, for generations, his family wrapped steaks in white paper, trimmed pork chops and sold turkeys.
Half of the market building, which stretches along Cross Street from Light to South Charles streets, is closed for a renovation project. Its developers are promising an updated place with “lively indoor and outdoor communal seating areas” and a “thoughtfully curated mix of vendors.”
So Cross Street is headed to the food hall concept — a type of communal food retailing that’s successful in Remington at R. House, and also at Mount Vernon Marketplace and Belvedere Square.
Nunnally is a bedrock, traditional butcher who deals in beef liver and pork chops. He said he considered joining the transition, but decided his business would be interrupted for so long that he would not be able to serve his customers.
For the Nunnally family, meeting and greeting the clientele is as important as hand-cutting their steaks.
He’s a survivor of old-fashioned market butchers — Cross Street once had 10 competing meat sellers — who sold the meats that were the basis of countless made-at-home family meals. He never sold prepared foods or takeout.
And no, you could not order a glass of red wine with his beef.
Nunnally says he’s “seen the handwriting on the wall at Cross Street for a long time now. It’s been tough for the last 10 years. The parking is horrendous.”
His great-great-grandfather Robert Nunnally, who was born in Virginia in 1850, founded his Baltimore business in 1875. He had stall No. 1 at Cross Street Market and lived nearby in a Cross Street rowhouse. The family business is the oldest continuously operated market stall in this historic city market.
“We are now in the fifth generation,” said Nunnally, who plans to join his brother and nephew, Mark and Chad Nunnally, at a fresh meat and seafood operation called Package Deals Plus in the 2800 block of S. Hanover St. “Our hospitality is going to be around for a long time.”
He described the old market scene that catered to thrifty Baltimore budgets and tastes.
“Cross Street Market was never the greatest of the city markets,” Nunnally said. “But it was busy and it thrived. And its customers were the greatest, down-to-earth people. It was an honor to wait on them. They could go elsewhere, but they came back here.”
As younger people moved to what became Federal Hill in the early 1970s, Nunnally preferred to describe himself as a South Baltimore butcher. He’ll tell you that in 45 years at the market, he cut himself on a blade only once, when he mistakenly dropped a sharp knife.
He recalled when he began working for his father and uncle as a 13-year-old apprentice. He would ride in with them on cold mornings.
“My uncle liked a cold car and wouldn’t turn on the heat until we passed the McCormick building,” he said, referring to the old spice factory whose place has been taken for the new 414 Light Street apartment building.
He later took the No. 19 bus — first from Hamilton Junior High School and later Northern High School — during the era when city schools were so crowded there were two shifts a day. He had classes during the morning session and could work afternoons.
“I made $36 a week and thought I was rich,” he said.
“There was never a Saturday off. It was not in the playbook,” Nunnally said. “People were paid on Fridays and they seriously shopped Saturdays.”