Henry Reisinger looks up at the red neon sign, reading “E.M. Fenwick’s Choice Meats,” that hangs above his head. “Isn’t it beautiful,” he says. “It’s been in here since I worked here.” When his stall moved eastward up the path inside Cross Street Market 17 years ago, he paid $1,600 to have it moved, as well. “I was not going to leave that sign there; I was under it for too many years.”
A customer comes by to purchase some meat and sauerkraut for dinner, and the two joke like old pals. He later reveals that they have known each other for 40 years. “I never thought I’d be here this long,” he says over the hum of freezer motors. However, he realized early that if you work hard, “you can make a decent living here . . . it’s six days a week, a lot of hours . . . it’s got to be a part of your heart and soul.”
Reisinger was introduced to the world of preparing and cutting meats in 1969. Before and after his high school classes, he would help Mrs. Edith Fenwick, who had owned the shop since the early 1950s. Fenwick, whose father and brothers owned stalls in markets throughout the city, came from a family of meat vendors. After she opened her own business and paid off her debt, Edith Fenwick bought herself a Model T, Reisinger says.
In the early 1970s, while he was working at the South Baltimore factory of NGK-Locke Inc., a producer of electrical insulators, Reisinger would still help Fenwick when she needed it. After a factory strike a couple years later, he returned full time to Fenwick’s. Then, on Oct. 22, 1987, a date he specifies with pride, Reisinger purchased the business, and has served as the sole proprietor ever since.
There’s a lot that goes into Reisinger’s work, such as “breaking it down into smaller sections, cutting it, displaying it, showing it to customers,” and getting the thickness that they desire. He prefers to work with larger portions of meat, buying the “hanging weight,” and says that customers bring photos ripped from food magazines of cuts they would like, like they’d do with a movie star’s hairdo at a salon. “French rack of lamb. They want it all cleaned up so you just see the bones out of the rack,” he describes, “and I enjoy making them happy.”
Still, he acknowledges some of the limitations of his work. “It’s a little bit boring to cut meat all day,” he says. “Let’s face it.”
Reisinger tells of the old days, when there were six or seven meat vendors at the market. Now, there remains only Fenwick’s and his competition, Nunnally Bros., just down the path. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of empty businesses now,” he laments, crediting the vacant stalls to the introduction of fast food in the 1980s, and the fact that “droves” of workers from places like the shipyards off Key Highway are a lunchtime dream of the past. Camden Yards was full of businesses with employees patronizing the market—“now? It’s two stadiums,” he says.
Referring to the recent request for proposals to privately redevelop the market, Reisinger says that the city should be more aggressive in filling the empty stalls, instead of bringing in a third party. “You can’t replicate this building, I’m sorry,” he says. “There is just no way you could build anew something like this; it’s too unique.”
He watches people enter the market from Light Street all day. “They say ‘how long has this place been here?’ They think it’s so cool,” he says. Whatever happens, Reisinger plans to stay with Fenwick’s as long as he can. “I didn’t make millions,” he says. “I provided good for myself and my family. I’m proud of what I’ve done.”