Shopping for cheese and a slice of life on Cross Street


Changing your cheese guy is not one of life's crises. Yet the other day when I saw a new face behind the counter at the Cross Street Cheese Co., I was knocked off stride.

Ed Byer wasn't there. After almost 13 years in the business, Byer had sold his Cross Street Market stand to Carole Chinn, the new face behind the counter.

I tried to put a positive spin on the development. I told myself I was not losing a cheese guy, I was getting a new cup of coffee. Ms. Chinn and her partner, Bill Lindes, had put an espresso machine at the stand and were making latte and other fancy coffees.

Moreover, Ms. Chinn told me she planned to expand the line of cheeses sold at the stand. So there was no reason for me to worry if my Parmesan would still crumble.

But it wasn't the cheese or other specialty items sold at the stand that I missed; it was the palaver. Byer had a free-wheeling commentary that he dished out as freely as samples of cheese.

And he and his one-time partner, Michael Jermann, were eager to offer cooking advice, telling me, for instance, that putting Gruyere cheese on a slice of ham could transform an ordinary ham and cheese sandwich into a noble croque monsieur.

This kind of interaction between customers and merchants is the lifeblood of the Cross Street Market and the other municipal markets in Baltimore. It is "inconvenient" to buy your cheese from one stand, your produce from another merchant, your meat from a butcher and your fish from a costermonger.

But when you buy food this way, shopping becomes more than a business transaction. It gets personal.

Sure enough, when I called Byer at home a few days after he had handed the shop over to the new owners, he said he would miss gabbing with customers. "I'll miss the market and hearing all those wonderful stories -- stories that you can never tell anyone," he said with laugh.

He also talked about what it was like to be a merchant in a city market. An enjoyable part of the job, he said, was introducing people to new foods. "The day I opened in 1981 there were 15 cheeses in the stand. When I left, there were 135," he said proudly.

His customers came from houses in Federal Hill, from yachts tied in the harbor and from distant city and suburban neighborhoods. When newcomers had found their way to his stand and tried his cheeses, Byer delighted in directing them to other market merchants selling meat, produce and fish.

"I believed the more people you got in the market, for whatever reason, the better it would be for all the merchants," he said.

For that reason, he supported the decision to let the sushi bar and a few other stands near Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood stay open on Friday and Saturday nights and during the day on Sunday, when the rest of the market was closed. Once they get familiar with the market, sushi-eaters would be likely to come back during normal business hours and patronize the other merchants, he said.

But Byer said he also understood why some of the merchants did not want to stay open past 6 p.m. "Many of these stands are run by a father and son, or a mother and a daughter. There are only so many hours they stay open. And if you ask them to stay open late at night, it would be a terrific hardship on them," he said.

"Working long hours can really get to you," he said. Byer, who gave his age as "in my late 50s," said his troubled health, especially a bout with arthritis, had figured in his decision to sell the stand. But he said he was already in training for his next line of work, as a travel agent.

After I finished talking with Byer, I realized that running a stand in a city market was more of a business proposition than a calling from food gods. I knew, too, that the life of a merchant was not all small talk and jokes. I knew that Byer and Jermann, who had worked at the stand together for 10 years, had business $H disagreements and had parted ways a few years ago.

Nonetheless, when dealing with the merchants in the municipal markets, I easily lapse into sentiment. So I told myself I would try the cafe latte flavored with hazelnuts being sold at the new Cross Street Cheese stand. But I knew I would miss the old days and old stories.

Like the one Byer told about the woman who had tasted her first piece of goose liver pate: "She said, 'Give me some more of that goose liver, Hon!' " Byer recalled. " 'It sure don't taste like braunschweiger.' "

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