Eastport supermarket on road to closing Thriftway's neighbors fear center could decline if it loses anchor store

November 03, 1997|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Three jars of Heinz Bread and Butter Sandwich Slices show what Wilbur Dove and Gary Jefferson won't tell -- Eastport's only supermarket is going out of business.

Over the weekend, those pickle jars sat by themselves on a shelf at the Thriftway on Bay Ridge Avenue, part of the meager offerings of a grocery store that has served Eastport residents for a decade.

"It's been like the topic of conversation for the past three or four months. You go in there and see the empty shelves, and you have to wonder," said Aretha Johnson, owner of the nearby Postal Express.

The Thriftway's owners -- Dove and Jefferson -- won't publicly admit that they are closing the store.

"We're in the process of maybe selling," Jefferson said Saturday.

Privately, though, the owners have told employees they'll need new jobs by the end of the month.

"We could see they were having a hard time," said Betty Fila, head teller at the store since it opened on July 1, 1987.

She wasn't surprised when the bosses told her Oct. 27 that the store was closing, but she was sad.

"We were all sad," she said. "Hopefully, they'll sell."

Johnson said he and his partner are in discussions with potential buyers, but declined to say who. They have owned the store for a decade, since Safeway vacated the site in the Eastport Shopping Center.

At first, business thrived.

"When I came to work here, there was more work than all the departments could handle," said John Cox, an assistant manager who has worked at Thriftway for eight years.

Then a statewide economic slump in the early '90s combined with fierce competition, and the store began to struggle.

"You could see it coming. We just weren't getting new stuff in," said Debbie Callis, a deli clerk at the store for almost two years.

Cox, son-in-law of one of the owners, said "business went way down" when a new Safeway opened nearby.

When Thriftway closes, Eastport residents will have to go to that Safeway, 2 1/2 miles away, or to a Giant supermarket 1 1/2 miles away in Bay Ridge for their groceries. For some customers, that is a long way to go.

"There are many elderly and not wealthy people who walk there," said Jay Baldwin, who shopped at Safeway until it closed and then at Thriftway. "It was a community meeting place until the stock started to disappear three or four months ago. It was very much a place where you saw everybody."

Many of the store's regular cus tomers live in Watergate Village, an apartment community sandwiched between Eastport Shopping Center and Back Creek.

"The store's within walking distance for a lot of people, whether they're old or young," said Gail McConnaughhay, a leasing agent for Watergate Village. "Residents have talked about it. They worry about it."

Merchants in Eastport Shopping Center fear the loss of the grocery store will hurt their businesses, too.

"With the anchor [store] gone, you have to wonder what's going to happen," said Johnson, the Postal Express owner. "You have to have an anchor, it brings in the people."

The fact that Eastport Shopping Center had a grocery store was a prime factor four years ago when she decided to lease space in the center for her business.

Since her store does a lot of shipping, and Christmas is coming, Johnson doesn't expect to see a slump until January.

But Jagannath H. Poojary said his Eastport Dollar Mart has already been affected. "As long as they have had low inventory, the traffic in here is slow," he said. "This is very inconvenient for us."

On Friday, Thriftway employees started posting signs in the store: "20 percent off."

Cox armed himself with a pricing gun and began discounting everything -- starting with those stranded pickles.

"We can't give the stuff away," he said. "But we'll do the best we can."

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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