Owners' ages and 'a changing world' mark end of 66-year-old market stall


Another bit of old Baltimore passed into history yesterday. The Dietz brothers -- and their sister -- sold their last orders of poultry and eggs across the counter of the Northeast Market stall the family has operated for nearly 70 years.

The Dietz family claims the record as the oldest continual retail business in a Baltimore public market. For Ken Berlett, the third generation in the business, it was a bittersweet 34th birthday.

While he is shutting down the stall the family has operated since 1925 at the market, at Monument and McElderry streets, Mr. Berlett is overseeing the business' return to its beginnings. It originated as a poultry wholesaler from its base on Potomac Avenue in Rosedale, where it also sells to retail customers.

"The basic reason [for closing the stall] is age; my mom and my uncles have gotten older," Mr. Berlett said. "They've loved the business, and they've made a good living from it, and they've become good friends with their customers."

"It's a changing world, and you've got to change with it," said Ray Dietz, 69, his uncle.

Like the other city markets, Northeast Market has changed dramatically, the brothers said, now open every day but Sunday and with fast-food outlets replacing many market stalls.

"What keeps the market alive is the 'lunch bunch' from Johns Hopkins Hospital that comes in every day for the fast food," said Kell Dietz, 75, another uncle.

"I miss the old market where every merchant was a specialist, and we all worked together. I won't miss the business, but I'll miss the customers," Kell Dietz said. He recalled as a child seeing farmers bring their produce in horse-drawn wagons for the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday market days.

William and Bertha Dietz founded the firm in 1923 as a wholesaler, first on McElderry Street. Two years later they included a retail outlet. Their children followed: John, who died in 1980; William, known as "Kell"; Naomi, 73, and Ray.

After their parents' deaths, John ran the business while his brothers had outside careers -- Kell as an insurance broker and Ray as an aeronautical engineer -- while working weekends at the stall.

"Our parents brought us here when we were little. There weren't all those child-labor laws then, so we were here," Kell Dietz said.

Even though they will spend much less time on the poultry business, they said they will keep their hands in on the occasional weekend and certainly at Thanksgiving and Christmas when the family's specialty, fresh turkey, is in demand.

One after another, customers came to the counter yesterday, many of them to be stunned by news of the closing.

Virginia Howard, 60, said she has traveled from her home on 30th Street to the Northeast Market every Saturday "for years and years" just to buy poultry and eggs from the stall.

"I just like their poultry better than anyone's," she said. "I'm really sorry to see them go. I guess I'll go to their . . . place out at Golden Ring."

Another regular, Ed Ellison, came from Catonsville to pick up an order of chicken. "I've shopped the city markets for 40 years; produce at Belair Market, seafood at Lexington Market, chicken and fresh turkey here. I'll still go to them for fresh turkey, there's nothing like it," he said.

Peter Kincaid, 74, of the 900 block Collington Avenue, said he has bought poultry from the Dietzes for 40 years. "They're good people to deal with; it's a shame they got old, like everybody else."

While many customers expressed regrets that the Dietzes were leaving the market, it took a 10-year-old girl, who does much of her family's shopping, to offer the most moving tribute.

On a hand-printed card, Nia Jackson said: " We didn't know much about chickens or poultry and such. We do know that we got the best -- for not very much. I'm glad you are retiring. I'm sad you'll leave the stall. You see, it was your kindness and your courtesy that we loved most of all. May God Bless You and Your Family."

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