At Benuel Kauffman's produce stand last week they were setting out the first bags of sweet Lancaster County spinach (two for $3) a few aisles over from a stall where they were selling off the last of

last

season's stored Cameo apples.

I wasn't food-shopping at the Reading Terminal Market, or at least I hadn't intended to. I had other fish to fry. But that's the way it goes here: You get bushwhacked by fresh spinach, intrigued by the staying power of an apple.

Then you find yourself in a conversation about the maddening search for good sandwich rolls. And how - without 20th-century appliances - superb tacos are turned out at the fresh market in the Mexican hill town of San Miguel de Allende.

And you hear, if you sit down for a few minutes, the news that the indestructible Dominic Spataro, still working at the lunch counter that bears his name, has just turned 90, and that he got that stoop in his back from falling out of, yes, an apple tree he was pruning.

What I'd actually come for was to stick $20 in that big brass piggy bank at center court where they're collecting money for the merchants displaced by the fire that swept through Washington's old Eastern Market at the end of April.

I was hardly a regular there, but as it happened, I'd dropped by the afternoon before the fire, watching shoppers rush in for organic chickens and hunks of cheese just before closing time.

The easel of photos next to the pig (Philbert, by name) shows the extent of the damage, physical and emotional - bull's-eye windows blown out, the roof hosed down and caved in, onlookers from the Capitol Hill neighborhood gathered and distraught.

It was not a grand or sprawling market. It's a bit older than the Reading market, dating to 1873. But it was in far worse shape - as witness the lack of sprinklers; Philadelphia has a state-of-the-art system. And with just 14 indoor merchants (excluding the clutter of curbside day-stands), it was barely a sixth the size.

Yet the neighbors were bereft and determined to get the thing rebuilt. Since the tall brick walls of the place appear to remain structurally sound, the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott writes that there's hope that architect "Adolf Cuss's gravely eloquent brick building can be returned to something like its former self."

Well, I'm certainly rooting for it, warts and all. The fact is that in Washington, as in Philadelphia, you can now find all manner of wonderful farm-fresh outdoor markets, and artisanal cheeses, and Whole Foods stores offering California's best.

But old public markets are touchstones and cracker barrels: You don't schmooze with the clerks ringing you up at Whole Foods; they're there to get you on your way. Nobody is going to regale you about the freshness of Mexican tacos, the hard times for finding bakers, or the end of local apple season.

Sometimes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Time and again, Eastern Market was teed up for extinction. In the late 1920s, it barely escaped demolition. In 1943, a bill would have had it become a children's theater. In 1964, it was declared a menace to public health, with the suggestion that it be replaced by "a huge supermarket . . . with plenty of parking."

The Reading Market had its down times, too. It was a lonely, gloomy place 20 years ago, leaky and left to rot. But times change, and food trends change, and so do sensibilities.

That prewashed bagged spinach trumps the gritty local stuff - until an E. coli scare. One era's congested aisles are another's social miracle.

Concepts of clean change, too, and even sound. Is Muzak better to shop by than the clatter of pushcarts? What's scarier - dirt on a Berks County potato or invisible poisoned protein just off the boat from China?

It's going to cost close to $30 million to make Washington's city-owned Eastern Market whole again, roughly the price of the tax breaks that Philadelphia's Tasty Baking Co. just got to relocate to new digs at the Navy Yard.

Twenty dollars says that the beloved Eastern Market will raise more of its rebuilding fund in small bills.

This month's contributions to Philbert the Pig at the Reading Terminal Market will be donated to the Eastern Market merchants fund administered by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation in Washington. Information: 202-544-1845 or www.capitolhillcommmunityfoundation.org.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.