Small grocer has big impact; Civic leader's devotion to Shady Side is strong

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a cramped food market, behind a counter overflowing with cigarettes, breath mints and cheap liquor, the mayor of Shady Side peddles steaks and toilet paper, good news and philosophy to his loyal townsfolk.

"I once heard a story," begins Mohan Grover, the self-appointed civic leader of this Anne Arundel County peninsula village and the proprietor of a five-aisle food mart in the heart of town.

"There was this man who wanted to change the world. But it did not work. So he said, 'Then I will change just my country instead.' But it did not work. So he said, 'Then I will change just my state instead.' But it did not work. So he said, 'Then I will change just my town.'

"A man must start small," the dignified, gray-templed grocer concludes.

And some men, by staying small, become very big.

Mohan Grover's empire is modest. The paint on the outside of his little store is peeling, and the sign announcing "Renno's Food Market" sags on one side.

Grover, his wife and three daughters have made their home not in one of the lush new subdivisions near town, but in a sparse apartment above their store.

His living room furniture is out of style, and the left-hand cuff of his starched dress shirt is missing a button and is held together with a bright red twist-tie.

But everything they have is bought and paid for, thanks to the grocery store he has opened 14 hours a day, seven days a week since 1974.

Now he could lose it all.

With the possibility of three supermarket giants building in the area, Grover -- and other small-time, well-liked business owners struggling to keep current on their car payments and to send their kids through private college -- worry that even their most loyal customers will be lured away by the 24-hour convenience of the one-stop grocery store.

"I wish I could look into a crystal ball and see how these stores will affect the quality of my life and the character of my town," he says. "But I cannot."

Environmentalists can protest, county officials can debate zoning and anti-growth activists can raise a big stink, but it's people like Mohan Grover who put a face on what fast-encroaching commercial development means in quiet little places like southern Anne Arundel County.

Grover watches over the comings and goings of this sleepy town while he rings up sales of lottery tickets and lunch meat. He knows most of his 3,500 constituents personally.

"Hello, sweetie," he says to the teen-age girl stopping by for a Coke after school.

"How have you been feeling? Any better?" he asks an elderly woman purchasing eggs.

And although Shady Side is unincorporated and the title isn't formal, virtually everyone waves and says, "See you around, mayor," on their way out.

Grover, still boyish at 54, looks bashful when people call him that.

"That's just their way of honoring me," he explains.

And why not? Grover has given plenty to this little town.

He attends every local funeral. Next to his store's cash register -- always -- there is a jar filled with nickels and quarters and pennies that he is collecting for one local cause or another.

Whenever there is a fatal accident on Shady Side Road, Grover places a wreath at the site to memorialize the victims.

Once, when firefighters spent all night fighting a terrible blaze, Grover opened his store at 2 a.m. and handed out sandwiches to soot-covered men.

And people notice.

One local pastor, Rev. Roberta Matthews, refers to Grover as the "man behind the town."

"He lives for this town," she said. "Do you think people can't see that? He's the kind of guy who makes you want to give back."

About seven years ago, when Grover suffered a bleeding ulcer and was rushed to the hospital, a handful of Shady Side residents showed up in the Annapolis emergency room offering to donate blood.

"For weeks after that, people would come into the store to buy something, and after they left, my wife would look at me and say, 'They were there that night,'" Grover says.

"Can you imagine what that means to a man?"

Shady Side is a provincial place with a rich history.

Situated in the southern portion of a waterfront county, the little town is one big environmentally sensitive wetland.

Residents are renowned for being loudly anti-development and tirelessly pro-environment. And as more and more people move in -- especially well-to-do folks looking to live the quiet life and make the easy commute to Washington -- longtime locals have grown increasingly annoyed by outsiders.

Yet somehow Grover, a man who is neither a Shady Side lifer nor even an American-born citizen, became de facto overseer of this place.

Born near New Delhi, India, Grover moved to the United States to attend Howard University. Trained as an engineer, he couldn't find a job after graduation, so he bought Renno's Food Market.

"I worked hard," he said. "Long days. Long hours. You could say I put all my eggs in one basket with this store."

Even after more than two decades as Renno's owner, Grover still balks at changing the name of the store.

"My customers tell me I've earned my name and should change it to Grover's," he says. "They say, 'Grover, you are a pillar of this community.' But I say, 'No, we'll just keep it Renno's."

Grover earned his customers' loyalty by going out on a financial limb.

In a dog-eared accounting ledger, the grocer recorded the bread and ketchup, hot dogs and butter that left his market bound for the homes of people who couldn't afford them.

"We can even up later," Grover became known for saying to faithful customers who were a paycheck behind or a mortgage payment short. "I trust you."

The three proposed stores -- a Food Lion, a Safeway and a Shoppers' Food Warehouse -- would all sit within about two miles of Renno's Food Mart and several other mom-and-pop variety groceries.

The Safeway complex, which would sit on nearly 15 acres at Bay Front and Deale Churchton roads in Deale, is proposed as a 55,000-square-foot store, 13 times the size of Grover's store.

The Food Lion, which would be at Deale Churchton and Shady Side roads near Deale, would be a 37,000-square-foot store, eight times bigger.

The Shoppers' Food Warehouse, in such a preliminary stage that no formal building plan has been drawn up, would sit so close to Grover's shop that he could walk there in a couple of minutes.

"How do you compete with that?" Grover asks. "I think it would be very hard to say those stores would not hurt my business and that scares me, no doubt.

"But even more than that, I worry about what that will do to Shady Side. If we had wanted to live in a metropolitan area, we would have. Instead, we chose a village."

Twenty-five years of seven-day work weeks will tire a man out. And some days, Grover would give anything for a nap or a vacation.

"But then I say, 'Hey, you're supposed to be tired at the end of a hard day's work, right?' " he asks, laughing.

Retirement sounds good sometimes, he admits. Not so that he could take up golfing or fishing, but so that he could have time to get involved in more community activities.

"I love this place," Grover says. "I'd like to do more."

Instead, he works.

He owes thousands for his oldest daughter's college education. His middle daughter attends Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts at a cost of $30,000 a year. And his youngest daughter, a high school sophomore, is leaning toward choosing an expensive private college as well.

"Sometimes you look around and think, 'I don't have much to show for all this work,' " he said. "But then you look at your kids -- good kids with good educations who are honest and kind and don't use drugs -- and you think, 'I am a rich man.' "

So while the building plans for the sprawling, brightly lighted, grocery stores sit in the county's Planning and Code Enforcement files, Grover continues to pull 14-hour days to keep his little shop profitable.

And as townspeople stop in to chat and buy milk and drop their extra change in the store's big glass charity jar, Grover knows that like the man who wanted to change the world but settled for a town, he has altered the face of Shady Side.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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