Icons: A Volatile Market

When Rick Olivieri was kicked out of Reading Terminal Market after a quarter-century selling cheesesteaks, it looked like old-school Philly politics. But a different sort of culture clash is threatening the country’s best big-city public market

EARLIER THIS SUMMER, IN Judge Mark Bernstein’s chambers on the fifth floor of City Hall, the most memorable moment of Rick Olivieri v. Reading Terminal Market occurred when attorney Dick Sprague hobbled through the door.

At the sight of him, most of the crowd went silent. In person, Sprague is thin and tiny, hunching forward dramatically at his shoulders — his posture and fearsome reputation combining to lend him the bent, wicked air of a crowbar. He is, arguably, the best, most expensive attorney in Philadelphia. He is, undoubtedly, a living symbol of this city’s elite and powerful. Such iconic status might render him a seemingly unlikely choice to represent a nonprofit organization in the mundane matter of a tenant dispute. But his appearance on behalf of Reading Terminal Market served as a fitting signal of which side held all the power on this day — and of how this city’s heavyweights tend to kill flies with sledgehammers.

The case had begun roughly one year earlier, in June 2007, when the Market announced its intention not to renew Rick Olivieri’s lease. Olivieri had been selling cheesesteaks in the Market for nearly 25 years, and he marched to court, alleging breach of contract and conspiracy. He was being retaliated against, he publicly claimed, for playing hardball with management as president of the Merchants Association. The Market initially contended he was ousted simply because he wouldn’t accept a new lease. His suit named the Market’s board chairman, Ric Dunston, and also Olivieri’s announced replacement, fellow cheesesteak-destination Tony Luke’s. The depositions and court documents filed in the following months read like a trip down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia politics. But by the time Sprague walked in the door, he had already filed a sufficiently trenchant series of arguments that Judge Bernstein had long since dismissed the conspiracy claim. Within the hour, the case would be settled. And the scorecard, in simple terms, would read something like this: Market — out nearly $700,000 in legal bills but chalking up a win; Olivieri — forced to vacate the Market by the end of October.  

In the end, though, this is one Philadelphia story in which politics are beside the point. Something else emerged as a threat to the Market, and it’s the real reason Rick Olivieri wound up under Ric Dunston’s boot heel. To realize this, you only had to see the reaction of Olivieri’s fellow merchants to the entrance of Dick Sprague.

Most of the gallery, including Dunston, was dressed for the occasion in suits. But the half-dozen merchants who showed up were dressed for the Market. They wore caps, t-shirts and jeans. And when Sprague hobbled in — when everyone else went silent — they kept talking. Just like the Market itself, their little corner of the gallery hummed with life — blissful, rhythmic, and unimpressed by the appearance of power.

Their chatter was, in a sense, the only evidence produced in court that day — ­evidence of a clash of cultures, a covert war to see if the Market will be ruled by Jeans or Suits, by the merchants themselves or by the board that recently claimed so much power. What hangs in the balance is whether Reading Terminal Market will remain … well, Reading Terminal Market.