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Corner Grocery Stores Confronting a Dilemma: Neighborhoods Like Columbia Heights Instructive

Accompanying images can be viewed in the January 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

As the District of Columbia transforms and progresses, corner grocery markets have three choices: change and upgrade, close, or desperately cling to the status quo. North Columbia Heights neighborhood is just one example. At one time, there was a corner market every two blocks.

For more than 50 years, corner groceries were ubiquitous throughout DC’s neighborhoods. One could find them on every other corner. They were convenient, but had little variety besides being expensive. Then along came large retail grocery stores like Safeway and Giant, let alone more recently Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target and Costco. In addition, 7-11 type stores began opening.

The first self-service store opened in 1916 in Memphis, called Piggly Wiggly; A&P was founded in New York City as The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1859; Whole Foods, 1980. The first true supermarket, Kroger opened in 1930. Post World War II, supermarkets proliferated.

The first 7-Eleven store opened in Dallas in 1927. At that time, being open between seven in the morning and 11 at night was unprecedented. Now, they have more than 57,000 stores and pose an on-going threat to locally owned neighborhood markets.

About one-third of the corner groceries have closed. The market for 30 years called by neighbors as Mr. Jimmy’s on 11th Street between Monroe Street and Park Road, NW closed upon the retirement of the owner, Jimmie Brockett. The neighborhood had changed and he wound up selling only cigarettes and some beer so the store was not sustainable. A lovely restaurant called Maple has replaced Jimmy’s. Also having closed was Nick’s grocery at 11th and Fairmont Streets, but that owner says he is still deciding whether to re-open or sell. Other corner groceries such as ones 13th Street at Park Road as well as the one Otis Place are trying to carry on without making substantial changes.

Mid 2015, Arthur’s Grocery at the northeast corner of 11th and Lamont Streets lost its lease and closed. Arthur’s had been there for 45 years, but it never owned the building. Neighbors lamented the closing, and as a posting on the Prince of Petworth blog expressed the disappointment, “Arthur’s Grocery is not just a convenience store, but a part of 11th Street’s community charm. This corner store sees many regulars and after school crowds for late afternoon snacks and has been owned and run by the same welcoming family for four decades.”

Indeed, Arthur’s was an institution. From community barbecues to fundraisers for local boxers to just incredibly nice people. That’s the thing that will be hard for some to understand; it’s not about the store at all, it’s about the people who ran it and worked there.

The good news is that successful entrepreneur Paul Ruppert of Room 11 fame, the restaurant and its companion coffee shop located on the southwest corner of 11th and Lamont Streets, has encouraged Room 11’s manager Jess Woods to create a gourmet grocery reflecting the ever changing North Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Ruppert comes from a long family line of successful business people. His great grandfather opened a hardware store in DC in the 1890s. This Ruppert also has opened Crane and Turtle, Upshur Street Books, and Petworth Citizen in the Petworth neighborhood. His newest venture, Slim’s Diner at 4201 Georgia Avenue, NW, is about ready to open.

Jess Woods along with her partner Rachel Mowrer will be in charge of the design and operation of this new store. Her vision is of a “friendly and convenient alternative to the bigger grocery stores in the area.” She plans to stock a variety of prepared foods, pantry items and household essentials as well as beer and wine. She expects that most customers will be neighbors. Also, the store will feature products made in the District. In addition, the store has a great outdoor area; its use still to be determined.

Woods hails from a military family and has lived anywhere from Germany to Yuma, Arizona. Her keen interest in cooking has led her to open and manage Slim’s Diner.

This vision fits in well with what a March 2015 New York Times article that characterized this section of 11th Street. NW to be “the hippest blocks in DC” since it is a collection of independent alternatives to the chains on 14th Street.

Finally, the last one-third are busy upgrading. Take a look at Sonya’s Market at 11th and Harvard Streets which was sold to new owners four years ago, and have now added some new, fancier items, such as prosciutto, artichoke hearts, and soy milk. Another example of upgrading is the Best Supermarket on U Street which transformed from a common independent supermarket to a gourmet market with fancy items.

So, overall corner groceries have big decisions to make as changes progresses neighborhood by neighborhood.

*Larry Ray is Senior Lecturer at The George Washington University School of Law and a mediator, arbitrator and executive coach. He has been elected four times as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and served on the Taxicab Commission and Police Commission. He resides now in Columbia Heights but previously did live in the Shaw, Logan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods.

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.