Center City: How a Reading Terminal Market Flower Vendor Adapted to the Pandemic

Sidney Poor, owner of Market Blooms, a flower and garden supply shop, talks about how her business has weathered the pandemic from inside one of America's largest and oldest indoor markets.

Two employees at Market Bloom prepare a rose bouquet together. (Jonaira South/PN)

At Reading Terminal Market, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many vendors to either close their business for a few months or limit their amount of workers.

Sidney Poor, owner of Market Blooms, chose to close her business for three months when the pandemic hit hard. 

Poor has sold flowers at the market for more than 20 years, and experienced the market before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. A longtime employee, she took over the business from its original owner about four years ago.

Sydney Poor of Market Bloom (Jonaira Smith/PN).

“He asked me if I wanted to try working at that place,” she said. “My literal answer was like, ‘I have two house plants. They’re not dead. I bet I could do it.’ And it turned out good. And I’m kind of good at it. I like it.”

Poor has spent most her tenure as owner navigating the pandemic. Before COVID-19, Reading Terminal Market was a major tourist attraction, especially during weekends, holidays, and other times when families visit each other. 

“It would just be like, packed in here,” she said. “It was hard to even walk around sometimes on the weekends.”

After hearing the mayor declare that non-essential businesses would be shut down in 2020, Poor realized how big of a disruption COVID-19 would be. She shut her store down that day and stayed closed for the next three months.

When she returned to restructure the store to make things safer for employees, customers, and herself, the was completely dead. 

“Sidney did a pretty good job, especially when the spikes started happening,” Talia Gallagher, an employee at Market Bloom, said. “Like, we didn’t get kind of penalized for not coming in if we were unsure. Sidney got some tests for us and provided N95 masks.”

Poor was able to ensure her staff was safe, even when Gallagher had doubts about the way the market enforced the guidelines put in place at the start of the pandemic. 

“I would say that the Reading Terminal Market only really followed the guidelines to a T with a bit more aggression during the Omicron spike like a month ago,” Gallagher said. “They made everyone wear masks a bit more, but the thing was, is we still could eat inside.”

Working at Reading Terminal Market has felt precarious at times, especially as restrictions loosened, Gallagher said.

Flower bouquets are on display and ready to be purchased at Market Blooms (Jonaira South/PN)

“They’re saying there’s a mask mandate, but eating inside is still allowed,” she said. “And they just put everyone in this one designated spot, but it’s still open-air, so it doesn’t even matter. So I found the response for the overall Reading Terminal to be kind of hands-off.”

Workers elsewhere in the market said getting used to the regular crowds and uncertainty has been part of working in the market during the pandemic. Angelina Mitchell, an employee at Bassetts Ice Cream since July of 2021 said that her job wasn’t busy during the pandemic, but her store remained open. 

“Honestly, I don’t even think my boss would close down if it was the end of the world,” she said. “We have not closed down to my knowledge. I know during COVID they only had my manager working, so there was only one person working every single day.

Having a boss that is thoughtful about the details of COVID-19 and is understanding toward staff concerns has helped mitigate the stress of working in Reading Terminal Market, Gallagher said.

Although crowds in the market have been smaller, vendors still served customers. Reading Terminal Market staff and vendors reorganized their operations to handle an influx of delivery orders through the service Mercato, which allowed customers to order directly from multiple vendors and then receive their order in a single delivery.

Managing the influx of these orders required a significant logistical change inside the market, though. 

“Even though there was almost no customers in the market, and there were a fair number of places that were closed , there were certain areas where there was a lot going on just to organize all of the deliveries and get them all done,” Poor said. 

Now that most pandemic restrictions have been lifted, the environment inside the market has shifted again. Poor has been slowly building back up to her pre-pandemic capacity. When first re-opened, she only stayed open until 3 p.m. Business was slow in the beginning, but store hours have increased and sales numbers are starting to rise, she said. 

A display of vegetable and flower seeds is ready for purchase. (Jonaira South/PN)

Other vendors haven’t been as lucky. Some have closed permanently due to not being able to pay their rent, Poor said. Poor has still been able to make a reliable “chunk of money” from Valentine’s Day, she said. 

“I was able to pay my rent and bills every month,” she said. “I don’t know if I could have done that without Valentine’s having already passed. But I was able to do that.”

Still, nothing has been as financially uncertain as the early months of the pandemic.

“Throughout the year of 2020, I was able to pay all my rent, pay all my bills pay all my staff,” Poor said. “I personally made $0 in 2020. I kept saying the whole year, as long as I have a business—viable business—at the end of this, it will be fine.”  

Though the business has been more stable the past several months, Poor is eager for spring and summer, both because of the blooming flowers and lessened coronavirus risk. 

“I am looking forward to the warmer weather,” she said. “Because I think that it does spread more and more easily in the winter months. So, it’ll be nice to have stuff outside and be the season where it is slightly less worrisome.”

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