The lights were off at the butcher stall (No. 620-616) at the heart of the Reading Terminal Market, the meat cases as empty as a waiting tomb.

It has been here since 1906, and rarely - and certainly few times in recent memory - have those lights been off during business hours, or those cases been empty.

This was (it still is, in fact) Harry G. Ochs Prime Meats, and in the dim light early Monday the tools of its trade were still easily visible - meat hooks overhead like so many rhino horns, and stubby-legged butcher's blocks (three of them), and an old brass scale and meat saws and aprons. (The knives, they put away.)

What wasn't there, of course, was Harry G. Ochs Jr., who died a week ago Sunday after a two-year cat-and-mouse game with cancer: He beat back the bladder cancer. And the colon cancer. But the lung cancer finally beat him.

He was 80, a tough bird, and from that center stall, which he manned like the captain of a tugboat, such a fixture - hectoring (the guys), flirting (with the girls) - that it seemed he was an actual piece of the place, a barnacle of a butcher who'd screwed himself into the floor itself.

How strange was it not to have Harry around, 62 years in the business, at work - at that very stall - since he was a teenager (born Finocchio, Italian, not German)?

"It's like walking up," said Carmen DiGuglielmo, the hoagie man, "and the door is not where it's supposed to be."

All week long, since his death, they shared Harry stories. About working with him in the '70s "when the rain came in" and rats roamed the market. About forgetting a purse, one woman remembered, and Harry pulling $100 out of the cash register. About Harry's soft spot for St. John's Hospice, the men's shelter down the block.

"I had my first illegal underage drink with him," volunteered Joe Nicolosi, whose father, Tommy, owns DiNic's Roast Pork. "I mean, my first illegal drink in a bar."

Harry had his posse. Before he got down to work - when he was in his prime - before he broke down hanging sides of beef, dry-aged in a slaughterhouse in Berwyn, before trimming a crown roast of lamb for a holiday table, Harry and Tommy Nicolosi, and Vinnie Iovine, the produce guy, met at center court for a wake-up toot of Grand Marnier.

Was it usually in the coffee? a visitor asked Tommy. Or straight up?

"Yes," said Tommy.

There was much reprising, too, of Harry's finest hour. It was in the mid-'80s, when construction of the Convention Center threatened to close the entire market for months.

"Harry said, 'Never give up the market floor,' " recalled Bob Brecht, who ran a fish stand at the time and joined the fight. If the market came back after a shutdown, he said, it would be fast-food stands.

Harry and his crew won in the end, wringing $21 million in crucial renovations from the Convention Center Authority, and losing not a single merchant in the process.

The hallowed hall - once home to three buttermilk stands (with gingerbread on the side) in a century of daily use - was, in a sense, Harry's own second home.

It was fitting, then, some suggested, that it was largely through his efforts that it was kept intact.

He was dogged, but never blustering as a subsequent merchant leader was; keeping his eye on the whole, not just his part of it: "There was not one ounce of grandiosity in him," Brecht said.

"He was a lion of the market," said Paul Steinke, the general manager.

So they came back here after the funeral on Monday, more than 100 customers, fellow merchants, and relatives, to lunch on the fruit of the market - chicken marsala from Godshall's and roast loin of pork from Martin's Quality Meats, lo mein from Shanghai Gourmet, and Delilah's macaroni and cheese, among a long line of chafing dishes.

They sang the praises of the market and reveled in its revival: For seven years customer counts have risen, totaling 106,000 bodies through the door each week.

Harry's son Nick, who has been running the business as Harry cut back to a day or two a week, showed off his father's ring (silver with a sapphire at the center) that, for the first time in his life, now fit on his own ring finger.

What were the odds, he said.

He turned on the lights at the stall, the better to show off its sparkle and the patina of its history.

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