Stores corner a special market
A piece of the past, 'mom and pops' still bind neighborhoods
Lee Chong's Grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy.
John Steinbeck, 'Cannery Row'
With his eclectic selection crammed into a small space, Young Moon, the self-effacing owner of Suzie O'Connell's neighborhood market, could be Portland's version of Lee Chong.
As Moon discusses one of his barely passable aisles (he calls walking down one particularly crowded aisle 'a sobriety test'), an elderly man enters the store and leans his cane against a shelf. Without saying a word, Moon strolls to a cooler, retrieves six cans of Budweiser and rings them up. The customer pays and leaves.
'Lives across the street,' Moon reports. 'Same thing every day.'
Suzie O'Connell's, at Southeast Stark Street and 31st Avenue, is among the city's healthy cadre of neighborhood markets. They're the stores that serve senior citizens who don't want to drive to Fred Meyer or Safeway. Or punk rockers bent on buying Pabst Blue Ribbon from noncorporate entities.
And, of course, they accommodate the snacking needs candy and soda pop of neighborhood kids.
In short, Portland neighborhood markets often are the soul of their immediate communities.
'Whenever anything's happening, like neighborhood garage sales, we know about it here,' says Carol Christensen, who co-owns Eastmoreland Grocery & Market, on Southeast Knapp Street near 36th Avenue. 'It's a neighborhood hangout.'
There's a lot of the same soul at Twenty-Third Avenue Market, at Northwest 23rd Avenue and Thurman Street, where Rose Medica, the mother of owner Homer Medica, has worked for 64 years.
The feel also extends to the Taylor Court Grocery. The market, at Southeast 80th Avenue between Taylor and Salmon streets, hosts a yearly neighborhood block party. The event includes a parade, and store owners Errol Carlson and Mel Hafsos each year crown a queen who must be 75 or older and have lived in the neighborhood for at least 25 years.
Taylor Court and others like it are creating memories that its younger patrons will recall fondly years from now. People love discussing their neighborhood markets.
For instance, city Commissioner Randy Leonard waxes nostalgic about White's, a store at Northeast Union Avenue and Morris Street, near his boyhood home.
'When they tore it down, I bought bricks from it and used them to build a fireplace in my first home,' he recalls. 'My older brother and sister and I got a kick out of hanging around the fireplace, because it represented a big part of our youth.'
Hard work, slim margins
Independently owned food stores make up 55 percent of small Portland markets, according to TradeDimensions International, which studies the grocery field. The company, based in Wilton, Conn., says the percentage exceeds the national average.
Small-market ownership isn't easy. Portland operators say they generate gross margins in the 15 percent to 20 percent range, less than the 29.4 percent tallied nationally by chain convenience stores.
The National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents neighborhood markets, says its members' profits fell last year by 27.9 percent per store, to $20,400. The association, based in Alexandria, Va., says about 7.4 percent of its members closed their doors or sold in 2002.
There's also an ever-present crime danger. A Grant High School gang robbed the Beaumont Market, in the Alameda area, several times in 1997 and 1998. Tom Shin has been robbed twice in the two years he has owned Neighbors Market on Northeast Sandy Boulevard near Prescott Street.
With shrinking profits, threats from thugs and the advent of super-sized grocery stores, it's a wonder that these microscopic stores stay in business.
'It's the personal touch,' says Moe Mowery, business development officer for the Small Business Administration's Portland office. 'Most of the proprietors know their customers' names, and they specialize by selling certain items to them.'
Mowery believes that Portland neighborhood markets remain viable: Most owners tell him they have no plans to sell their stores.
Changing of the guard
Many of Portland's original mom-and-pop proprietors have sold their stores to new immigrants hailing from eastern Asia; these new 'mom-and-pop' owners, many of them from Korea, often enlist their families to help operate their businesses.
'It stems back to Asians not being able to get jobs in the so-called white community,' says Betty Lee, a Portland Classical Chinese Garden board member who is an Asian-American community activist. 'Consequently, they may work for a while at lower pay but save enough money for a business of their own.'
'The thing about newer Americans is that sales success translates very well,' adds Jeff Leonard, a National Association of Convenience Stores spokesman. 'If you know how to serve customers, it doesn't matter where you are.'
Bob Duff, a University of Portland sociology professor, says many Asians see small-market ownership as a means to make life better for their children.
'The whole idea is to defer gratification to, and earn an education for, their kids,' he explains. 'It's a pattern we've always seen with immigrants, and I think America has benefited enormously from it.'
As has Jack Chung, owner of Alberta Street Market at Northeast Ninth Avenue and Alberta Street. Chung is finalizing a federal economic development loan that will allow him to build a multiuse complex on the market's current site.
The two-story, 7,000-square-foot complex will include a restaurant, a hair salon, an art studio, an insurance office and the revamped Alberta Street Market.
'It's removing a blighted site and adding more jobs,' says Fred Atiemo, business finance manager for the Portland Development Commission, which is helping Chung secure the loan. 'The building will complement the neighborhood, and, importantly, the owner has the capacity to repay the loan.'
Stores connect people
Atiemo further believes that the market will provide a needed neighborhood hub which is a neighborhood market's primary function, says Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University's School of Urban Studies and Planning.
'People are interested in making connections, and these stores offer the opportunity to do that,' Seltzer says.
Jennifer Daneluk, owner of Ross Island Grocery at Southwest Corbett Avenue and Whitaker Street, agrees. One customer told her he'd met a longtime neighbor during the store's Friday night open mike performances.
'They'd lived across the street from each other for 10 years and had never spoken before,' Daneluk says.
At O'Connell's, Moon is discussing his business model when he notices that his older customer has left his cane behind.
'Better take it over to him,' he says. He grabs the cane and locks the front door, affixing to it a handwritten sign assuring his neighbors that he'll be back in five minutes.