Photography

Kodachrome Flashback Shows Reading Terminal Market in the Early 1980s

March 1, 2022 | by Jay Levy

A mother and her children at Reading Terminal Market in the early 1980s. | Photo: Jay Levy

During the fall and winter of 1980-81 I worked for a small film production company on the Bucks County side of County Line Road. On occasion, when we needed a fast turnaround on film processing, I was dispatched early in the morning to NFL Films Lab at 13th and Florist Streets where I would drop off our reels and hang out in the city until they were ready to be picked up around mid-afternoon.

I had plenty of time, and there were many things to do. Love Park was a great place to spend some time. I especially liked to watch the local grandmasters of lightning chess play high-stakes matches in the shadow of William Penn, the city’s founder. Just wandering the streets was always interesting if the weather was good. If not, there where lots of indoors attractions.

Wanamaker’s was still a stylish department store. The famous organ was played daily and could be heard while having lunch in the Terrace Court. At Christmastime, the light show dazzled the crowds in the Grand Court, and upstairs the monorail train still circumnavigated the toy department. I bought my all-time favorite pants there while skipping school as a senior in 1967–wide wale corduroys in what the label stated were “tobacco green.” I was glad to be back to wander through the sprawling men’s department window shopping the latest stuff.

Strawbridge’s, in their original building at 8th and Market, was also on my list, but Gimbels had moved into The Gallery which I, being a Center City traditionalist, avoided. Malls were for the suburbs. A few blocks away on Chestnut Street I could browse in Sam Goody or I. Goldberg Army & Navy with the other bargain hunters.

Photo negative sequence of the Reading Terminal train shed during the winter of 1980-81. | Photo: Jay Levy

The train shed at Reading Terminal Station was a wonder of engineering, function, and light, and the sound of movement, both mechanical and human, was incredible. If it wasn’t raining I enjoyed sitting on the benches to watch the people and the trains. As a kid, this space had been my gateway to the city coming down on the West Trenton Local to see a big movie at the Fox or the Stanton. SEPTA had not yet opened what is now Jefferson Station, so commuters still arrived and departed at Reading Terminal.

At the time the market underneath the station was having somewhat of a renaissance. The first Amish shops had just opened, and many of the historic tenants like Harry Och’s Butchers and Godshall’s Poultry were still thriving businesses. As The Original Turkey and Down Home Diner had not yet arrived, the clear choice for a good meal was Pearl’s Oyster Bar. I ate lunch there most days that I waited to pick up our film. Invariably, I had fried oysters with chicken salad, after which I went shopping in the market for that night’s dinner before heading back over to NFL.

I made these images over that fall and winter as I shopped for dinner at Reading Terminal Market. For most of the vendors it was a bit of a novelty being asked to be photographed. I can’t remember any one of them turning down my requests. My subjects and I all had a good time with the process, which was always quick because they were busy. The photos were taken with a Pentax Spotmatic using Kodachrome film.

I had the opportunity recently to return to the market after a long absence. I was quite pleased to see that, although the chicken salad was no longer on the menu, the fried oysters at Pearl’s were as fine as I remembered them.


Reading Terminal Market during the fall and winter of 1980-81. Photographs by Jay Levy.



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About the Author

Jay Levy grew up in Feasterville and studied photography and film making at Bucks County Community College. He now lives and photographs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

13 Comments:

  1. Cirel Magen says:

    Hello Jay Levy, I thoroughly enjoyed your photo essay about the Terminal, despite the painful nostalgia waves almost drowning me. Perchance, do you have pictures of two long gone stands: one where a man sold home made bread and wooden toys that he made; the other, in the Amish section, where a vast variety of lettuce leaves were displayed in a table with purpose-built lettuce leaf shaped cut-outs ? (I have been accused of hallucinating those stands.) Thank you, Cirel Magen

    1. Jay Levy says:

      Sorry, but I don’t have any photos of those stands.

  2. Mike says:

    This is incredible. My dad is the Amish guy weighing something on a scale. I’ve never seen pictures of him from this long ago. Thanks for posting.

    1. Jay Levy says:

      contact me through my website: jmlcosmo.zenfolio.com for a print
      (free)

  3. David says:

    I’m so glad I found this post. The Amish man in the blue shirt is my father. Because he was Amish at the time, we have no pictures of him at that age. This picture will stay with me and be shown to my kids and grandkids. Thank you so much for posting it.

    1. Jay Levy says:

      contact me through my website: jmlcosmo.zenfolio.com for a print(free)

  4. Thad says:

    This is amazing! Beautiful work, thanks for sharing it.

  5. Tony Farma says:

    Having served as an Ambassador(Guide) at the Reading Terminal the last two years I really enjoyed looking back 40 years and comparing it to today’s Market! As I recall back in the early 80s the Terminal was in grave danger of being razed for a high rise office building. However, due to the huge public outcry and the imminent completion of the Commuter Tunnel the Market was saved. The numerous vacant stalls were quickly occupied by newcomers like Sang Kee Peking Duck, Down Home Diner, DiNics roast pork and several other ethnically diverse food destinations! Now in its 129th year of existence the Reading Terminal continues to thrive and serve the needs of Philadelphia’s hungry citizens!

  6. Barbara E Lavinson says:

    I have to become a member now! These pictures and stories and tours are our history, being born in Germantown, even though I am only in Phila. for a few months each year! Thanks all for sharing to enrich our memories and not have all this info disappear!

  7. Frank Marlow says:

    GREAT pics!! Brings back the sounds and smells of the market vividly! A unique place….have never found anything quite like it anywhere else in the world since leaving Germantown in 1970!! Thank you for a trip down memory lane! I need to get back there, if it still exists. I sure hope it does!

    1. Helen T. says:

      Been a patron of RTM since 1958. It’s still there & better than ever. I go to Beiler’s for shoo fly pie & Hatfield Deli for chipped sweet Lebanon bologna & scrapple.

      Do come visit. You won’t be disappointed. Just a word of advice – RTM can get very crowded on weekends.

  8. M Farrago says:

    Great photos. Everyone looks so friendly. You managed some red accents in almost every shot, so the photos pop. I’ve been going to the RTM for decades. I remember a dark period when plastic sheeting festooned the ceiling to head off the leaks when it rained, and the whole place was dark and grim, with, ahem, things crawling around. Thankfully, it looks much more inviting, and clean, these days. The dark and bright side of developers. Your wistful stories of hanging out in Philly are touching. I think many of us who traveled into the city saw it with the same sense of awe.

  9. Ione E Couch says:

    Love the pix and article. I visited the Reading Terminal Market frequently taking public transportation from Pottstown, PA. While I did buy food, my main purpose was to buy paperback books – most without a cover. I went back home very happy!

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