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Saying goodbye to Reading Terminal royalty | Mike Newall

Dom Spataro was Reading Terminal royalty — part historian, labor leader, mentor, father figure and raconteur.

A photo of Domenic Spataro, longtime owner of Spataro's Cheesesteaks, hung for a memorial service in Center Court of the Reading Terminal Market.
A photo of Domenic Spataro, longtime owner of Spataro's Cheesesteaks, hung for a memorial service in Center Court of the Reading Terminal Market.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The Reading Terminal Market, for all its on-the-surface chaos, is an institution that runs on routines and rhythms. And the death of Domenic M. Spataro, a son of the Terminal — its oral historian, merchant mediator, Hawaiian-shirt-cloaked ambassador — has upended those routines.

To the untrained eye, the market goes on as it always has — Domenic's colleagues can't stop the cheesesteak lines. So, they mourn as merchants can.

Working the cash register at Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks, Carmen DiGuglielmo will choke up if he thinks too much of his friend.

At his health food shop, David Schieber takes a break from loading his dolly to speak in soft words of his old friend, who welcomed him to the market.

And then there are those mornings when Tommy Nicolosi, the dignified roast pork maestro at DiNic's, perhaps Dom's oldest friend in the Terminal, will pause and remind himself again that his pal is gone.

"We lost one of the best of us," he said.

>> READ MORE: At Reading Terminal, rich history in a changing landscape

Domenic M. Spataro, who died at age 63 this month, was raised in the Terminal, the son of Domenic C., proprietor of Spataro's dairy, which opened in 1947. The family's original  "Drink Buttermilk and Live Forever" sign still hangs near the center court of the market. One morning, when Dom was 8, his father woke him up. "I need you — get up," he said. Dom did, and went to the Terminal to work alongside his father, and there he stayed.

Over the years, Spataro's transitioned from a dairy to a sandwich shop to cheesesteaks, and sometime in the 1980s started stocking soda, at Dom's urging and with the reluctance of Mr. Spataro, at heart a dairy man. They held fast through the Terminal's dark days in the early `80s, when there were only 25 vendors, no air-conditioning, no heat, and talk of closing. Between slinging sandwiches, Dom somehow found time for night school and a master's in psychology at LaSalle. ("Question: $10," read the sign he hung near his counter. "Dumb question: $20.)

When his father died in 2012, Dom officially took over the shop.

And when he grew ill from heart trouble in recent years, his son, Alex, took over. Dom transitioned from his plaid work shirt to a loud Hawaiian print. He remarried, allowed himself to travel Europe, and perched on a stool at Tootsie's Salad Express across the way. He called himself the Terminal historian, and rightly so: His 55 years in the market made him its longest-tenured shopkeeper. "He had been in this building through thick and thin," Alex said.

And he would pass that history on, over coffee at Tootsie's, or if you caught him at the right time, over a scotch and soda at the Terminal bar. Every tour given by Anuj Gupta, the Terminal's general manager, stopped at Dom's stool.

"This is a joyful place," Gupta said. "And he represented the joy."

On Tuesday night, with their shops closed, the merchants allowed themselves to mourn in a way they couldn't during market hours. They held a memorial at center court. There were photos and flowers, and Tootsie Iovine sang a spiritual. They talked of how Dom's punchlines lightened the market. How he was a curmudgeon, but a lovable one when he felt like it. And about how he loved the market. Oh, how he loved the market.

And in the morning bustle, a new routine has developed: one born from absence. Spataro's general manager Walter Lefflbine sits alone at the counter of Tootsie's, which he and his boss — "a brother, if not father," he says — had called their office. He sits on Dom's old seat, under the photos of Dom that Tootsie taped to the wall.

"We have lost the centerpiece," Walter says from his stool, greeting the merchants, regulars, and Terminal veterans who know where to come to grieve.

"Will the market go on and thrive? Of course. Will it ever be the same? No," said Beth Palubinsky, a regular who stopped by Tuesday morning with her husband, Al, who remembers going to the original Spataro's, run by Dom's father, in the 1960s for ice-cold buttermilk, and cream cheese and olive sandwiches. "It felt there were things you could count on. Dom being here and holding court — he was always warm and funny, and he always had a smile on his face. This was his little kingdom. And that little spirit is gone."