Eastport Market fights to survive; Residents rally in effort to keep grocery store open

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Booth said the survey found their potential clientele was varied, ranging from low-income families in public housing to professionals living in $500,000 homes to seniors. He said their strategy has been to provide something for each group -- seven types of olives and a broad selection of cheeses for the affluent; prices competitive with Safeway and Giant for families on tight budgets; and shopping and delivery services for seniors.

The store got off to a good start the first few weeks, Booth said, with about 1,000 people coming through every week, spending about $75,000 a week -- what they need to break even. But as time passed and the fanfare subsided, the aisles grew emptier, and the store now brings in about $50,000 a week.

Booth speculates that Eastport residents had gotten used to driving to Safeway and Giant after Thriftway shut down, and the routine was hard to break. He said even though about 600 to 700 customers come through each week, the store's average sale is only $10.

"They're basically using us as a very well-stocked 7-Eleven," Booth said. "They're doing their big shopping somewhere else."

"I go to Giant because of force of habit," said Jeff Holland, a longtime Eastport resident who lobbied for a grocery store to come to the community. "I can't say the prices are any better there. But I've been trying to do lunch and breakfast [at Eastport Market's deli] and picking up a few items here and there."

Booth has tried to stem store losses by cutting back on personnel -- from 75 when it opened in June to 20 -- and has tried to reach out to customers by sending out mailings and conducting a survey last month. Of the 600 cards he mailed to Eastport residents, only 27 were returned, he said.

The store has reached out to the community in ways chain stores traditionally haven't, staying open throughout the day Hurricane Floyd blew through Annapolis and providing refrigerator space for residents whose power went out.

Booth also introduced a 5 percent discount for seniors on Wednesdays that started positively in August, with about 30 shoppers using it at first. But Wednesday, the store logged only three seniors coming through. With such dismal figures, he said the store may have to close within weeks, even though residents have launched a campaign to save it.

"The problem is, it may be too little, too late," Booth said. "When you bleed that severely, it's hard."

In the meantime, community leaders have planned an Oct. 20 meeting with Booth and Cardwell to discuss solutions. Nancy Noyes, editor of the community's free newspaper, The Publick Enterprise, has begun running editorials urging residents to shop at the store. The Eastport Business Association is planning a networking party at the market to help promote the store.

And some residents are re-evaluating their shopping habits and contemplating putting their dollars where their hearts are.

"We'll be very disappointed if it closes," Moyer said. "But that's just the way the world is sometimes."

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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