Eastport Market fights to survive

Residents rally in effort to keep grocery store open

October 11, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A few milk cartons stand sentry in a nearly bare refrigerator. The shelves of detergent have gaping holes. And while the produce section is fairly well-stocked, Carol Jabin can't find decent-looking carrots.

But that doesn't stop Jabin from trekking weekly to Eastport Market in Annapolis, even though the retired accountant knows she will have to make a trip to the Safeway a mile away to finish her shopping.

"I don't need to come here," Jabin said during a recent visit to Eastport Market, while tossing back a bag of slightly withered carrots after careful inspection. "But I'd like to see this neighborhood store work."

In recent weeks, grocery shopping in Eastport has taken on a greater significance than the mere purchasing of household essentials --it's consumer warfare.

With many residents choosing to drive to nearby large grocery stores, the small, independent Eastport Market, which opened in June, is losing $25,000 a week, forcing its owner to slow down on replenishing stock and consider closing by the end of the month. And residents of this tight-knit neighborhood are rallying around the store, sending frantic e-mails to friends, lobbying neighbors to shop at the market and organizing meetings to discuss ways to keep the store in business.

At the heart of their effort is a desire to preserve their community's local flavor. In Eastport Market, residents see a bastion of small-town life, an essential part of the village they have tried to create.

"It goes back to the notion of what a community is," said Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, who represents Eastport. "A grocery store, in our minds, is a place where one can walk to and see people that they know and have a conversation. It's an important link. That kind of sense of who you are and where you are is very important. The world has become bigger and more faceless, and we've lost a lot of that."

When Moyer talks about preserving her community, she talks about having a self-sufficient village, not having to drive outside to "big-box stores" to buy food, dry-clean shirts, get aspirin. She and other Eastport residents wax lyrical about the notion of not having to rely on the cookie-cutter malls and strip shopping centers that have proliferated in American suburbia.

Susan Nigra Snyder, who teaches architecture and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania, said such feelings are common in communities such as Eastport, which has a growing population of transplants. The neighborhood across the Spa Creek Bridge from downtown Annapolis had for centuries been a blue-collar community of watermen, who earned their living building boats and pulling crab pots from the Chesapeake Bay. But in the past 20 years, Eastport attracted many upper-class professionals seeking prime waterfront property near boating and sailing facilities.

"Everybody is decrying the lack of authenticity today, and for transplants, small-town life has a certain authenticity," said Snyder, who has studied how patterns of consumption affect the evolution of neighborhoods. "They have this epiphany while gazing into the wilderness or farmland that this is the real life, the golden age, before Wal-Mart came and messed it all up. And these people tend to see the supermarket or the hardware store as representative of that time."

However, Snyder pointed out that nostalgia alone has not managed to save small businesses in communities that she's studied, including New York City's SoHo district. She said residents have to be willing to pay more for goods and services or sacrifice such things as a wide variety of products.

Craig Booth, who manages Eastport Market, said the business hasn't made a profit since it opened in June. He said its owner, Mark Cardwell, who owns independent grocery stores in Edgemere and Dundalk that are doing fine, initially had reservations about opening a store in Eastport.

The 18,000-square-foot store on Bay Ridge Avenue had been empty since December 1997, when Thriftway went out of business after 10 years. For more than a year after Thriftway left, residents clamored for a new grocery store. But even though city officials sent out letters advertising the space, chain stores didn't bite because it didn't meet their needs of at least 60,000 square feet.

Independent grocers such as Cardwell were concerned about competition from a Safeway and Giant within short driving distance, Booth said. He said he did a market survey that convinced them a store would flourish.

"We got a very, very positive response from the community," Booth said. "We heard from residents who said, `Oh, we've wanted a grocery store there for so long!' We were absolutely convinced that we could do well here."

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