The luck runs out: Convenience stores go out of business

Lucky's chain spent half a century serving communities from Baltimore to Odenton

October 18, 2005|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Darlene Shifflett arrived at the Lucky's Superette in Brooklyn to buy deli meat yesterday afternoon and found a metal gate pulled tightly over the entrance and a sign thanking customers for nearly a half-century of business now drawn to a close.

Too stunned to drive home, the courier and cafeteria school worker from Federal Hill sat in her car in dismay. "It's like a death in the family," she said.

Lucky's Convenience Stores were the kind of close-knit, mom-and-pop operation where cashiers knew their customers by name and could rattle off their sandwich order before they walked through the door. So it didn't take long yesterday for word to spread that the 11-store chain that had been a mainstay in working-class neighborhoods of Baltimore and of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties was calling it quits.

With shops from Arbutus to Odenton, the chain met the fate of many small stores facing stiff competition from national chains and big-box discounters.

The throwback stores, plastered with sale signs outside, were short on modern marketing techniques but long on dependability, customers said.

"It was kind of like a Cheers grocery store - everyone knew your name," said Kathi McMillan, 39, who came by the Lucky's in the 400 block of E. Fort Ave. with Jimmy McClain, 36, hoping to grab some last-minute items to prepare a spaghetti dinner.

Neighbors gathered in front of the South Baltimore store throughout the afternoon and stared at a door fastened closed with two small padlocks.

"We'll miss you," read a sign's simple message to customers. Another informed employees of a meeting at noon today.

At the Brooklyn store on Ritchie Highway, customers peered through the gate as car after car pulled into the parking lot only to turn away.

"It's like losing a friend. It's not so much the food but the personal connection," said Marv Edwards, who lives across the street from the Fort Avenue store and could hear the clank its gate opening early each morning.

He went to Lucky's for sandwiches at lunch or for things such as salad dressing when he ran out during dinner. He had become so close with some of the employees that they gave him the nickname "Marvelous," he said.

Judy Lynch, who owns the convenience store operation with her former husband, Charles A. "Bucky" Lynch, confirmed the closing in a brief telephone interview yesterday from the company's Pasadena headquarters. She blamed Maryland's $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes for taking a toll on the business, driving some buyers to other states such as Virginia, where the cigarette tax is 30 cents. About one-third of convenience store sales come from cigarettes, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

"It's sent our customers out of state," said Lynch, adding that she was too distressed to say much more. "It was a crushing blow for us. Right now, I just want to go home."

Like much of the convenience store industry, Lucky's has also faced competition from larger grocers and retailers. Even drugstore chains and gas stations sell many of the staples that had been the mainstay of convenience stores. Many consumers buy toilet paper in bulk from discounters and run to the nearest store less often.

"Everybody out there is a convenience retailer, and that has put more competitive pressure on traditional convenience stores to look for different ways to attract customers," said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the trade association.

Lucky's closed its Pasadena store Oct. 3 because of competition from neighboring supermarkets. Early this year, the company posted signs on doors of its stores warning customers about its drop in sales, according to reports in the Maryland Gazette at the time.

Charles Lynch, who grew up in South Baltimore and dropped out of school in eighth grade, bought his first store in 1959, at William and Cross streets in South Baltimore. He sold his car for $500 and used the money as a down payment on the $7,500 cost of the store.

Lynch opened the store because he was tired of the outrageous prices charged by others, with few options in some neighborhoods, he said in a profile in The Sun in 1979. He opened the first Anne Arundel store in 1965, before suburban growth transformed the county.

"I didn't have a nickel. ... I figured I could eat bologna ends and sleep in the back room," he recalled in the article, remembering his early days in business.

City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, remembers showing up at a Lucky's with 25 cents in his pocket as a boy and walking away with a comic book and a snack cake. Through the years, he said, the chain became an institution. More recently, Reisinger said, his wife would drive way out of the way to buy lunch meat at Lucky's because of the way it was sliced.

"Basically, it was a neighborhood store that had everything," he said. "His employees were people living in the neighborhood. ... It's going to be missed."

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