Can D.C.’s corner store dinosaurs evolve?

The 15th Street strip.

The 15th Street strip. Click to enlarge.

Just East of Capitol Hill, corner stores play more into the rhythm of daily life than the big-box stores, CVS and groceries of more commercial areas in D.C. But 15th St., straddling Northeast and Southeast, might be the winner of the most dense cluster of near-identical markets.

15th and Independence SE.

S.E. Market at 15th and Independence SE.

First and foremost is S.E. Market. This store is ready for war — absolutely covered from floor to ceiling with off-white iron cages. This is the shabbiest-looking of the 15th St. Four. There is a thin layer of trash for a block in any direction of this store. But don’t blame the market. The real culprit is Independence Avenue, a traffic sewer that coincidentally speeds up as soon as the road leaves Capitol Hill proper, prompting drivers to treat anything east of 14th St. as flyover territory. As packs of cars rip by this intersection, which lacks a stop sign, the road is treated as more highway than neighborhood. Hence, the trash tossing.

15th and East Capitol Street.

D.C. Express Market at 15th and East Capitol Street.

One block up is D.C. Express Market. This store is unique because of New York-style folding metal doors that can be opened and closed, thereby opening the store to light and not giving off the sheen of a World War II army bunker. Though D.C. EM professes to be a grocery with produce, I wouldn’t count on doing your weekly shopping jants here.

Bella Market and M&T Market constitute two more of these stores. They are essentially indistinguishable. Same building type, same orientation to the street, same iron cage of doom that says: Don’t buy anything here, it is not safe (even though it is).

15th and A NE.

Bella Market at 15th and A NE.

On one hand, these stores offer color and a neighborhood feel Hill East that some parts of Washington lack, most likely because as neighborhoods rents rise, price-gouging customers on a bottle of ketchup no longer looks lucrative in the face of big-time rent money. Furthermore, corner stores and their close cousin, chicken-pizza-seafood-sub-Chinse carrouts are just a part of D.C.’s identity. Like the Italian sandwich shops of the Southern Maine I know, it is possible that nostalgia plays a part in why people shop here. It is just what we do.

And if you show me a picture of Yum’s carryout, I know we are talking D.C. And certainly that is significant in a  city that is often maligned for not having that regional identity that Philly and Chicago peeps like to brag about.

15th and Constitution NE.

15th and Constitution NE.

So perhaps it is that identity that Hill East stands to lose as housing renovations, condo-conversions and new apartment construction continues. But surely some corner store closures can be avoided if these bad boys start offering products that compete with groceries on quality and on price (think corner stores in San Francisco with fresh produce, or more locally, what has happened with corner stores in Georgetown). They are simply so close to such dense residential neighborhoods that if the products are reasonable, convenience will trump a drive to Safeway.

This strip is but the tip of the iceberg. Just north of M&T Market, but not quite as tightly packed, are another cluster of markets — and the neighborhoods near H Street are packed with corner markets because, as of now, there are really not a lot of grocery options. But many of these stores have been sitting on their prime real estate for too long, and they are ripe to get pushed out as soon as somebody offers better products for a lower price in a more convenient location. Wal-Mart is coming — it’s going to happen. Can D.C.’s corner stores fight back? Or are they a relic of the past?

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5 Responses to Can D.C.’s corner store dinosaurs evolve?

  1. down says:

    This reminds me of that old debate about corner stores: is it better to burn out or fade away? Jimi Hendrix vs. Neil Young. Robert Johnson vs. Son House, et cetera. Eastern Thrifty Market seems to have faded. The place that used to be at the corner of 14th and Fairmont, though, on the street level of the New Amsterdam building? Cold burnout. They were flying high, like Icarus high (not least due to steady patronage from myself and other Drew-ers), then the city bans selling singles. A month later? Boom. Gutted.

    Me, I’m going with “burn out.” Better to live on as a sweet memory, periodically glimpsed on through a veil of nostalgia, than as a leering, skeletal reminder of what eventually happens to us all.

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