Market Still Has Lots Of Fans But No Lease

December 28, 1990|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,SUN STAFF

To an outsider it may have looked like nothing more than a simple tenant-landlord dispute between a convenience store and a shopping plaza.

But in London Towne, last winter's disagreement over the renewal terms for Carper's Food-Rite's lease became white hot when it evolved into a political issue that spawned petition drives, town meetings and candlelight vigils. After the Carper's closed down last February, customers began a boycott of the plaza that many residents say they still honor. All to no avail, though.

Ten months after the store's lease ran out, Arthur "Pa" Carper hasn't been able to come through on his vow to reopen elsewhere along Mayo Road.

Still, he has all his equipment in storage and a location in mind that he hopes will pan out.

He and his wife, Hilda, are in their 60s but say they aren't ready to retire. They haven't traveled or taken up new hobbies. Carper said he is eager to get back to work.

"It's been rough. When you work all your life it's hard to retire."

"Sometimes the good guy doesn't win," said a sullen Maryellen Brady, remembering the frenzied protests against the termination of the Carper's lease that she led last winter.

More than 400 people packed the London Towne Community Center for the first rally in support of the store in November 1989, with many spilling out into the muddy parking lot straining to hear testimonial after testimonial to the Carpers' good will and contributions to the welfare of the predominantly working-class community.

The tone of that rally took a radical turn when one Edgewater resident took the microphone and called for a full-scale boycott of the Woodland shopping plaza if the Montgomery County family that owns it didn't come up with a lease acceptable to the Carpers. Other speakers rose to complain about the encroachment of wealthy Washingtonians.

Brady later explained that the rally was originally intended only to gauge support for the store to help it relocate, but after the reaction to the idea of a boycott she thought the community might be able to keep the Carper's where it was.

More than 1,500 residents signed a petition asking the landlord, Saah Properties Inc., not to oust the Carper's, but the Rockville company said that the time to talk had passed and that it had already agreed to have a High's convenience chain replace the Carper's. Family member Linda Saah was outraged at the boycott threat, which she called "blackmail," and would give the Carpers only a one-month extension on their store's lease before the High's moved in.

Residents refused to accept what they saw as Saah's business-as-usual explanation of the demise of the 17-year-old Carper's Food-Rite, which had become a sort of town center. "Ma" and "Pa" Carper had become local heroes for their warm service, low prices and charity; the Saahs were vilified as absentee landlords.

Fifty of the most loyal customers mourned the passing of their beloved market with a candlelight vigil and a picket line, their hand-lettered signs vowing to boycott the plaza.

Brady says that she knows no one who has shopped there since.

The manager at High's, who would not identify herself to a reporter, said that business has been "fine" and that she has "never even heard of any boycott."

"But," she explained, "I'm not familiar with the neighborhood."

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