Grocery tradition ends

Landmark: Craig Parker is closing his Towson grocery store, where customers could still get custom cuts of meat and the owner made deliveries.

April 24, 1999|By Liz Atwood

It's the kind of place where the butcher knows your name and the owner makes deliveries. But Parker's -- the last independently owned grocery store in downtown Towson -- will close its doors for good Friday, ending 57 years in business.

Yesterday, as the store's deli served up a tuna special to a brisk lunch crowd and butchers took orders for hamburger and roast, longtime customers said their goodbyes to owner Craig Parker, who decided to close the grocery to spend more time with his family.

"I've come here for a generation," said Margaret Perin, 86, of Mount Vernon, who said she doesn't know where she will shop now. "I wouldn't buy my meat anywhere else."

With its creaky wood floors, meat counter and home delivery service, Joseph S. Parker Co. is much as it was when Parker's grandfather founded it in 1942.

But in an era of 24-hour supermarkets that offer salad bars and sushi, Craig Parker found it increasingly difficult to compete. Approaching 40 and tired of working seven days a week, Parker awoke one day about two weeks ago and decided to give up the business that has borne his family name for more than half a century.

"I'm not getting any younger, and my children aren't getting any younger. The ends don't justify the means," the soft-spoken Parker said.

"It's a good decision," said his wife, Lori, who worked at the grocery while the children were in school. "The kids want to see their dad."

Parker's wife, 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son are happy about his decision, but longtime customers were devastated by the news. Yesterday, many wiped away tears and hugged Parker as they made their last purchases.

"I'm shocked," said 83-year-old Anne Cordett, who lives in a high-rise apartment building across the street and does nearly all of her shopping at Parker's.

Unable to drive because of poor eyesight, Cordett said she now will have to take a taxi to an area supermarket.

"I lived through the Depression and World War II, Vietnam and Korea," she said. "But I still think I've lived through the best years in the United States. I feel sorry for young people."

`The food is great'

Many elderly customers depended on Parker's because it was within walking distance of their homes. But Towson office workers also favored the store, which offered deli sandwiches and homemade crab soup.

"The food is great. The atmosphere. The quality," said Sterling Lease, who works at a Towson law firm and has been eating lunch at Parker's for 10 years. He munched the tuna special while seated at a table next to the store's picture window.

Parker's is the latest in a string of longtime Towson businesses to shut down, noted Baltimore County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican. Recently, Towson Photo Supply and Leroy Haile, a real estate company, were sold to large chain enterprises.

"It's sort of sad," Skinner said. "It changes the landscape as far as the business is concerned. Before, it was personal. It was like family. It's now outsiders."

Parker's was started by Joseph S. Parker during World War II after he left another Towson grocery to go into business for himself. He died in 1967, and his picture -- and meat cleaver -- hang behind the meat counter, flanked by certificates recognizing the store's contribution to the business community.

Craig's older brother, Joe, ran the store until 1982, when he asked Craig to join him. Craig left college in his senior year to work alongside his brother, eventually earning his degree through night classes.

When Joe Parker left the business in 1988, it fell to Craig. The store operated from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but Parker worked much longer hours, leaving home in Bel Air at 5: 30 a.m. and usually not getting off until 10 p.m. He often worked Sundays to catch up on the store's paperwork.

He swept floors, ordered inventory, waited on customers and delivered groceries.

In the summer, he stood over a grill at the Towson Farmer's Market each week cooking hamburgers and roast beef.

He was also active in the Towson Business Association, serving as president and on the board of directors.

"We knew if we needed something, we could always count on Parker's," said Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association.

Customers said Parker's was distinguished from the chain supermarkets by its prime beef and its customer service. Meat was cut as customers liked it, and about 60 elderly customers had their groceries delivered to their homes each week.

"We knew our customers' names, and they knew our names," said butcher Charles Nickens.

Bad news delivered

Parker said he hated breaking the news to his customers and to his 27 employees, some of whom had worked at the store for decades.

"It was a shock to me," said Paul Trager, 77, who has worked at Parker's for 20 years. "People thought it would always be here."

Parker said he will liquidate the inventory and sell the equipment. His family hasn't decided whether to sell the building, which occupies a prime piece of Towson real estate, looking out on the new roundabout in the center of the business district.

And he hasn't decided what he will do when the business closes. "I'll be just like the rest of my employees and looking for a job," he said.

"I know our business will be missed, but it's gratifying to know how much they [customers and employees] have enjoyed their experience here."

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