Lawyer cultivates business at Italian Market

Lou Cambria waits on a customer while working part time at a fruit and vegetable stand in the Italian Market.
Lou Cambria waits on a customer while working part time at a fruit and vegetable stand in the Italian Market. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 26, 2013

It is the Saturday before Christmas, and customers are lining up two and three deep as Lou Cambria, wool cap pulled down over his forehead, rushes with boxes of lemons and grapefruits from the sidewalk to a table at a stand in the Italian Market.

The sidewalks, usually jammed on weekends, are even more so on this day as people make last-minute holiday preparations.

Cambria arranges the lemons and grapefruits, bantering all the while with John Gargano, who manages the stand, as customers press in, scoop up the fruit, and hand over their money.

"You have to move fast, and you have to be good at calculating in your head," Cambria says. "When you grow up around here, it kind of gets in your blood."

Monday through Friday, Cambria is a lawyer with a solo practice on South Broad Street, where he represents a diverse mix of clients, many referred by family and friends. Typically, they are small business clients, or people needing assistance writing a will. Occasionally, he will handle a criminal matter.

But on Saturdays, Cambria trades in his rep tie for jeans and other work clothes and pitches in at the Italian Market. Cambria doesn't do it for money. Partly, he's there to help out Gargano, a neighbor, who typically sends Cambria home with a box of fruit for the trouble.

But Cambria says it is also about connecting with a place that was the heart of his neighborhood when he was growing up, a place that has great emotional resonance.

Cambria, 52, started work at the market as a teenager after school, where he helped his father, who had his own fruit stand on Ninth Street, south of Washington. The market has become much smaller; and many if not most of the stands south of Washington started to disappear in the 1990s.

"This place has history," Cambria says. "You look throughout the world, and you will see that these outdoor open markets are in every community. There is something primal about it, to have that feeling, to go out and do the shopping and see the fresh produce and the fish. It is a whole dance."

Cambria says some of his fondest memories are of working at the market with his late father, who had a stand as a young adult, left it to go to work in a factory - at the insistence of his wife, Lou's mother - and then returned to the market when the factory closed.

"I loved working with my father, and I thought it was a good opportunity as I was coming of age to be working with him, shoulder to shoulder, at the market," Cambria said. "For me, it was a good thing. I was helping my family."

But Cambria saw the market was changing. One by one, stalls began to disappear, and the big crowds, once steady throughout the week, now were mostly limited to weekends. And while there are still throngs on the weekends, Cambria says, many of the customers are there for the specialty food stores, or to drink coffee, or simply for the experience of an open-air market.

Fewer people are buying five- and 10-pound bags of potatoes with the idea of feeding a family for a week. That had been the market's core business.

"I felt that I had to do something more with my life than end up on Ninth Street," Cambria says. "I saw the business decline and saw how things were changing, and how the need for a Ninth Street business wasn't as great as it was before."

Cambria did his undergraduate work at Temple University and, following his mother's advice that he become a lawyer, then attended Delaware Law School, now Widener University Law School. He went to work for a small firm in Center City, where he focused on personal-injury cases. When firm leaders began to talk about moving to the suburbs, Cambria said he knew it was time to go out on his own.

He and his wife, Debbie, his high school sweetheart and now a nurse, started a family and raised four boys, ages 17 through 25.

Most of Cambria's clients hear about him through word of mouth. He's done reasonably well, he says, with referral fees on some medical malpractice cases that he sends to firms that specialize in those lawsuits.

He refuses to advertise, even though he believes that aggressive advertising by other personal-injury lawyers is likely costing him some clients.

"I think it cheapens the profession," Cambria says. "It presents [potential clients] with an option as to where they can go for legal services, but it is based on glitz and a shiny ad."

For now, though, Cambria is content to handle the business that walks through the door, often from new immigrants to the United States, while working Saturday mornings at the Italian Market.


cmondics@phillynews.com

215-854-5957

@cmondics

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