Last downtown grocery in Annapolis will close


Rookie's Market, the last grocery in downtown Annapolis, is closing after more than 45 years in business.

Owners Dennis Lowman and his brother, Ray, had hoped to sell the business to someone willing to continue operating a grocery at the Market Space location, but changing times and higher rents made that impossible.

The grocery will close March 12.

"I think it's horrible," said Louise Hammond, a City Council candidate in the 1st Ward. "Rookie's is pretty much all we've got left for groceries."

At one time, downtown Annapolis had several grocery stores, including a Safeway, an American and an A&P.; Now all are gone or have moved to the suburbs.

Only Rookie's, at 28 Market Space near the City Dock, remained.

In this day of sprawling supermarkets with check-cashing cards and generic foods, Rookie's was something of an anachronism. The owners donned white aprons and worked the cash registers. They knew customers by name, allowed them to keep charge accounts and even delivered groceries.

Although the selection at Rookie's was not as large as that in a modern supermarket, the grocery nevertheless provided staples, offered fresh-cut meats and operated a popular deli.

Customers ranged from boaters who sailed into Annapolis for a day to Naval Academy midshipmen to downtown residents who walked to the store.

"These are the things that make a town," said Ann Dax, a Rookie's neighbor who frequently buys milk and bread there. "The most important things are schools, a post office and a grocery."

Rookie's was founded in 1948 by two brothers, Francis "Rookie" and Augustus "Honey" Lowman, shortly after they came home from World War II.

They moved the store to its present location in 1960. Some years later, Augustus Lowman bought the business from his brother, but Francis Lowman retained ownership of the property.

When Augustus Lowman died in 1981, his sons, Dennis and Ray, took over. More than half the store's 12 employees are members of the Lowman family.

Ray Lowman said that recently the brothers were talking about selling Rookie's and doing something else. Business was down because of the recession. The deli's lunch crowd had been hurt by the elimination of the state employees' lunch hour.

"It was time for someone to come in and bring the place from the 1950s up to the 1990s," Ray Lowman said.

A few weeks ago, a real estate agent found two potential buyers, but the Lowmans learned that their uncle, Francis Lowman, was planning to raise the rent and lease the space to Michael Riordan, who owns Riordan's Saloon next door to the market.

Mr. Riordan said he assumed the lease after Francis Lowman had told him that he was planning to increase the rent and was considering leasing the Rookie's space to a Riordan competitor.

Mr. Riordan leases storage space in a part of the Rookie's building and was afraid the new tenant would not continue the arrangement. In order to protect his own business, he assumed the Rookie's lease, he said.

Mr. Riordan said he considered subleasing to the businessmen who planned to buy Rookie's, but they could not agree on rent. ZTC The Lowmans had paid $2,200 a month, but their successor would have had to pay twice that amount, Mr. Riordan said.

"What Dennis was paying in there was a family consideration. It was way under the market," Mr. Riordan said.

He said he still doesn't know what he will do with the additional 4,000 square feet, but is considering options that include expanding his own restaurant and bar.

Some residents are angry by what they see as another example of Annapolis becoming a city for tourists rather than residents.

"They want everything to look trendy and plastic," said Arthur Kungle Jr., who stopped by Rookie's last week.

The Lowman brothers were disappointed that the higher rent means the loss of the sale of their business, but they seem even more distressed that there will be no grocery to replace Rookie's.

"We can recuperate from the financial loss, but it's the emotional loss," Ray Lowman said.

Mr. Riordan does not discount the possibility that another grocery store operator will be found for the location.

He also suggested that the city might find ways of attracting a downtown grocery by subsidizing the rent of one on city-owned property.

"If that could be done," he said, "the issue of Annapolis' last grocery store could be solved."

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