The neighborhood grocery store

47 comments on The neighborhood grocery store
2 minutes
Nikon N60, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor, Kodak Gold 200 (expired), 2013

When I was a kid, Mom would give me a few dollars and send me to the store for an item or two that she needed to make dinner. Cira’s was our neighborhood grocery, and it was just four blocks away. I could reach it on my bicycle in five minutes. Cira’s had just six aisles, so selection was limited. But I could count on finding common items like tomato soup and ground beef.

My least favorite thing to carry home from Cira’s on my bike was milk. That gallon threw off my weight balance! I had no basket, so I had to carry it in my hands, which got mighty cold mighty fast. In all the years I fetched milk for Mom I managed to drop only one gallon. It hit the pavement like a bomb, white milk spreading out across the gray pavement.

Cira’s closed 20 years ago, and the building is vacant. Across America, except in pedestrian-centric cities like New York, most corner groceries have gone the way of Cira’s.

Today I occasionally find a small grocery like this IGA Foodliner when I pass through small Indiana towns. This one is in Morgantown, directly south of Indianapolis. Or at least it was — when I check on it on Google Maps, it closed sometime after 2018.

After Cira’s closed, locals had to drive a few minutes to reach a grocery store, either local stalwart chain Martin’s, or one of the national retailers like Kroger or Walmart. The folks in Morgantown now need to drive 10 miles to Martinsville to do their grocery shopping. In Morgantown, moms can’t send their kids to the store for milk anymore!

Lots of little IGA stores still dot small towns of the Midwest and South. I don’t know anything about the economics of small-town groceries, but I wonder whether their days are numbered for the same reasons city neighborhood groceries have largely died out.

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47 responses to “The neighborhood grocery store”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I think high crime killed most of the neighborhood small corner stores, as well as flight to the suburbs. I live in a city neighborhood and we lament the loss of smaller stores that disappeared around the 80’s where you could pick up milk or soup if you were short at home. My Mom used to send me three blocks away to the store with a note for me to get her cigarettes! Try that today! I think exterior pressures like value of real estate, property taxes, and insurance costs also contributed to the loss, as well as the demise of the corner candy store.

    In the far edges of the city, and suburbs, the multi use gas station has replaced the corner store. Where I live, there’s a regional chain called Kwik Trip that has everything the corner store used to have, including fresh foods and prepared meals. I know single people that do the majority of their eating out of these places.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I feel sure that competition killed the corner store just as much. Cira’s prices were always high, typical of small stores, and I’m sure the coming of Walmart and Meijer dried up whatever clientele Cira’s had left.

      1. Paul Russell Avatar
        Paul Russell

        When the owner of the 4-aisle grocery in our small town (approx. 800 people) decided to close up shop shortly after we moved here, he said he had not made a profit since a big box store opened about 10 miles away, at the edge of a nearby city. Local residents work in the city and stop at the big box store on the way home. The quality of his fresh meat and fresh produce was better than what the big box stores offered, but he could not compete on price. After he closed the store, he went to work for another big box store. He still had a family to feed and bills to pay.

    2. adventurepdx Avatar

      Ha! Guess I was not the only one sent to the store with a note from mom to pick up a pack of cigarettes (and actually getting them!) That was almost forty years ago, I cannot fathom that happening today.

  2. DougD Avatar

    Dunno about that, if high crime killed the small stores then why didn’t they make the jump to the suburbs? Bigger stores with better selection killed the smaller stores.

    In our town we still have a small grocery store that has been in operation 100 years. It survived by skewing towards high quality and specialty items. It’s within walking distance of a medium sized grocery store which is skewed the other way, so it seems to work.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Doug, I think a lot of the economics of these places meant that growing and investing in larger operations in the suburbs was not a choice. What we used to call Mom and Pop operations just stayed in business until they couldn’t stay in business any more. The majority of small businesses are not making a huge profit, nor even thinking about, expansion, they just want to run their store and make a living wage. I remember stories in the paper about these neighborhoods going “bad” and these small stores getting robbed blind, and shoplifted to extremes until they closed. There are certainly small family owned stores in my city that stayed in business with quality goods and even premium wines, but those stores exist in areas of my city that also stayed upscale, and in fact, went from upper middle class to vintage regentrified real estate. That doesn’t describe 7/8ths of my city, tho, and Target and Lowe’s have already closed city stores where “shortage” is in the double digits! Those stores were in areas that used to have small corner stores too.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      Cira’s did open a much larger suburban store. It kept going after the location near my home closed. That location is gone now too; I don’t know why.

  3. SteveB Avatar

    There used to be a Red Owl store and a Piggly Wiggly near our house (about equal distance in opposite directions.) Both have been gone for decades but I still remember going there with my dad when I was young. Love the IGA picture.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Kind of a shame that the walkable grocery store just isn’t a thing anymore.

    2. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      SteveB my dad was a long time Red Owl shopper until the near end of the chain. I fondly remember the great Red Owl head logo!

      BTW, the last Red Owl is in Green Bay Wisconsin! Go Pack!

      1. SteveB Avatar

        That is sooo cool. I didn’t know there were still any Red Owl’s around!

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I grew up in a village that was all small stores. A&P, Red & White, and IGA. (The paradox of “IGA” has always amused me.) Then the big Star supermarket was built, and the others slowly went out of business. Then another supermarket put Star under. Et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. There’s one small grocery where I live now, but the way things are going it looks like -ALL- the stores will put themselves out of business as they consistently don’t have product on the shelves. Not that food is affordable in any way anyhow anymore.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In South Bend, it was Kroger and Martin’s (the major local chain) that put small stores like Cira’s out of business. Then Walmart and Meijer came along and changed the competitive landscape again, although Kroger and Martin’s are still around.

  5. JR Smith Avatar

    I am quite fortunate that there is a small, neighborhood grocery store just a 10-minute walk from where I live. It started as a butcher shop and then a few groceries and now about 10 aisles. Just about everything I need including a wonderful deli counter and very nice produce department with locally grown fruits and vegetables. The downside of the convenience is much higher prices than the big Raley’s grocery store which is a 10-minute drive from my home.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      If I had a walkable little neighborhood store like that I’d pay the higher prices just to support what they are doing! I can walk to Meijer in about 15 minutes and I do that sometimes, but it’s not the same.

  6. Ben Cotton Avatar

    I didn’t grow up with a walkable/bikeable grocery store (the closest wasonly seven tenths of a mile away, but the road was not suitable for walking or biking). For a brief one-year window in my adulthood, I had a store that I could walk to in five minutes. It was great, especially for those “oh crap, I forgot this one thing I need for dinner” moments. But it couldn’t compete and it closed.

    Where I am now, there’s a convenience store a block and a half away and another about 10 minutes walk away. I try to patronize them when I can because I like the experience of having a corner store, but they’re more focused on snacks than ingredients. When I go to larger cities, especially in Europe, I’m always surprised at how easy it is to just walk to the things you need. I wish smaller American cities had stayed that way.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Where I lived before this, there was nothing close for a long time. If I forgot something, it was a real problem given how long it took to get to the store. Then Walmart opened a Neighborhood Market about a mile away. It wasn’t walkable but it sure was driveable in just a few minutes. It was a lifesaver.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I do a lot of eating out of the deli in my nearest upscale grocery store, like pre grilled chicken breasts, meat loaf slices, chicken Kiev, etc., BUT, the life saver for me on a fixed income is the local Walmart Neighborhood Market. I never thought I’d be backing Walmart, and the shopping experience is an exercise in social tolerance, but for name brand packaged goods, there is absolutely zero places that are cheaper. I remember when Walmart was the devil in the 90’s, blamed for shutting down small, and high priced, local stores, but today, they are a lifesaver and Amazon is the devil! My Walmart hires locals, including giving employment chances to the recently emigrated and those with physical disabilities! My local Walmart superstore even stocks stuff I’m trying to buy locally, like office supplies, that even Target and Officemax don’t carry anymore. I hate having to go online to buy literally everything like a red ink pen!

  7. Doug Anderson Avatar

    We live about a mile away from a large predominantly Mexican neighborhood in the next town. There are a number of neighborhood groceries ranging from small corner stores that sell a few grocery items in addition to cigarettes and lottery tickets to a store that probably has as much shelf space as the IGA in your photograph albeit with less floor space because the aisles are very narrow (no shopping carts and no parking lot). With so many nearby competitors and four supermarkets within a ten minute drive the prices are reasonable. And the produce is outstanding.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Where I used to live, Mexican groceries were popping up toward the end of my time there. I never went in – maybe I should have!

  8. tbm3fan Avatar

    I’ll leave out all the small Asian markets with maybe 3 aisles all the way up to medium size which my wife uses like Seafood City. I’ll also leave out all the Mexican/Hispanic grocers that populate the area also. I will compare Grocery Outlet to Cira. Grocery Outlet has 7 aisles with the frozen food cases down the middle and along the back wall. You could say that they sell over stocks and close outs. So a 28oz. can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes will cost $1 less than Lucky’s or Safeway. You buy 20-30 items and the savings does add up. Within 3 miles of me I have access to three of them. They have 457 locations. While not sounding like a local grocer they sure do feel like it and they are busy with $3.135 billion in 2021 with local HQ. They build no buildings but just lease out empty spaces like an ACE Hardware that closed down the road. I shop there 95% of the time and will be there this morning. My wife was once an assistant manager at one back in 2004 as her first job after arriving from the Philippines.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds terrific! I wonder if they’ll open stores in Indiana.

      1. tbm3fan Avatar

        Maybe one day. They are like the grocer you talked about but with a larger selection yet without the prices of the small local grocer or the big guys. I average about a $30 each week over the big guys who I know well. Just three cans of Hunt’s diced tomatoes (28oz @0.99 and 16oz @ 0.59) saved me close to $5. Those are prices from 15 years ago. Today $40 as I bought a few meat products.

    2. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      TBM, you hit on one of the killer problems for retail in the late 90’s. The regional department store I worked for owned so much property they still owed money on, and long term leases they were still on the hook for at premium rates, now located in neighborhoods that didn’t command premium rates, that it was just killing the company! Sharp negotiation on short term leases in empty commercial property that’s been empty for a while, seems to be the way to go. When I was working for them in the 90’s, we always joked the company was being run by a bunch of people that learned their retail philosophies in the 40’s, which included 25+ year leases and premium property as anchor stores in suburban malls. When the downturn based on online shopping hit, some of their leases still had 15 years on them, and the management companies were playing hardball.

  9. adventurepdx Avatar

    The fairly dense, working-class neighborhood that I grew up had at one point three corner stores within the span of 1/3 mile. None of them would be good for regular grocery shopping, but great for picking up milk and the newspaper. And this was just the end of the era where a buck could get a candy bar and a can of soda (with deposit!) One of them definitely was frozen in time, with a very elderly shop keeper and an old cash register that seemed to be even older (and bigger) than him. None of those stores remain.

    I’m lucky that where I now live it’s a ten minute walk to Fred Meyer and a Plaid Pantry, so we often send the kids to grab milk and the like. (Though no cigarettes, thankfully.) The tradition continues!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A corner store like those in your childhood sound delightful.

      I am literally just back from a walk to Meijer to pick up a few things. It’s 1.69 miles round trip – long, but do-able.

  10. Warren W Jenkins Avatar
    Warren W Jenkins

    IGA and Independent grocers seem to be holding their own in this mid-Atlantic region of PA and MD. Although the town where I live has 2 “name” supermarkets, their main competition in 2 nearby smaller towns are a pair of family-owned grocery stores, who compete fiercely against the bigger stores. Both family stores have great reps for their butcher shop, deli, and bakery.
    Another village 10 miles from me on the PA-MD border may lose its local market due to the business being potentially squeezed out by 2 Dollar Generals, less than 2 miles apart!
    While frowned upon today, my childhood trips to the local market on behalf of my mother were lessons in everything from how to cross a busy street, to simple economics; I would take 50 cents, her DORAL Menthols were 35 cents, that left me 15 cents for baseball cards, soda, candy, etc.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think childhood trips to the market like this are essential to growth. It’s a shame that society is afraid to send their kids into the world now.

  11. Bill Matthews Avatar
    Bill Matthews

    We had an IGA in the small town I grew up in in Central Illinois that I grew up in. But every year during the summer we would go to Canada and visit all my Canadian relatives. My aunt and her husband ran a small independent grocery store that I would hang out in and get free popsicles. This was back in the early to mid fifties before credit cards. I remember she would provide credit to her customers. She had a cash register that she could put a stiff paper card in that was for a specific customer and keep track of the customers charges and when they paid off the charges. They also would deliver groceries for awhile paying her nephew (my cousin) to do that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember my mom telling stories of calling up one of the local department stores, ordering things, and having them “charge” it — just put it on her account and send her a bill. Sounds so simple and good.

  12. Tam Avatar

    The little Preston Safeway at 56th & Illinois was my go-to during the early days of the pandemic, when I didn’t feel like dealing with the crowds at Meijer’s or Target on Keystone.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s a pretty good Safeway, carrying some nice items. The one at 30th & Kessler is …not nice.

      1. Tam Avatar

        I do sometimes forget “Broad Ripple privilege”.

        Not long after I moved here back in ‘08, I joked that for Broad Riparians, “Northern Indiana” started at 86th Street and “Southern Indiana” started at 38th Street.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Oh that’s a good one!

  13. Rob Rogers Avatar
    Rob Rogers

    I was lucky, growing up in the early 60’s, to have two corner stores on the way home from school (we walked, of course). And three more in the other direction In Minnesota they were usually called “dairy stores” since they were affiliated with but not owned by dairies.

    I’ve never felt as rich as when I spent a whole dollar on 100 baseball cards (with a stick of gum in each).

    From 1970 to 1976 my part time high school and college job was working in one of those stores — it was about 30 feet square and the owner lived in the house it was attached to.

    We sold cigarettes to kids with sometimes-suspicious parental notes, allowed some families credit, and the Hostess delivery driver also brought the betting slips (select customers only).

    I’m retired now after 38 years as a software developer but that store clerk job was one of the best jobs I ever had.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember dairy stores! In my hometown it was Burger Dairy. I was in a small town in northern Indiana over the weekend and found the last Burger Dairy still operating! I wish I’d photographed the sign; it’s iconic for people in that area.

  14. Khürt Williams Avatar

    Across America, except in pedestrian-centric cities like New York, most corner groceries have gone the way of Cira’s.

    We have bodegas in the cities in New Jersey with large Spanish speaking populations. Princeton has one called Lupita Groceries with a colourful mural. They sell groceries and other items that can’t be found in the neighbourhood grocery store.

    Every town in New Jersey, including mine, seems to have a Wawa. Wawa is a convenience store and gas station chain found in the Mid-Atlantic region. The name “Wawa” is derived from the Ojibwe word for the Canada Goose.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve seen Wawas here and there – none in Indiana, but elsewhere.

  15. brandib1977 Avatar

    I live in a rural area where people have always had to drive for what they need. However, we had the equivalent of a corner store in the small general mercantiles that once dotted our landscape. We had two remaining when I was a kid in the eighties and I loved both. One in particular still sold penny candy in a big, old creepy building with farmers gathered around a pot bellied stove. The proprietors were an elderly couple who knew every person that walked through the door, their ailments, their grandparents and their regular order. It was delightful.

    In my part of America, all the general stores and corner markets have been replaced by Family Dollar and Dollar General stores. It’s a pity too. I miss the community of those old places.

    Great story today, Jim. I love this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was on the Michigan Road on Sunday. It’d been a while. Family Dollar General stores had gone up in three separate MR communities. It just makes me sad.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        It’s terrible and it is almost a running joke because if you see a Family Dollar, the Dollar General can’t be far away.

        They are everywhere.

        1. Andy Umbo Avatar
          Andy Umbo

          Compared to Dollar General, and Family Dollar, the Dollar Tree and 5 Below are practically becoming high end department stores! The Dollar Tree in Brownsburg Indiana was so clean and well stocked, it was a joy to walk into!

          1. brandib1977 Avatar

            What a sad commentary.

            1. Andy Umbo Avatar
              Andy Umbo

              …agreed, but what I can tell you from 30+ years in retail advertising, is that people vote with their pocketbooks! I lament the loss of the classic department store, and the walkable fairly stocked neighborhood grocery store, but me and my friends that feel the same way, are not the majority of people shopping, or else those places would still exist. As my brother-in-law is fond of saying: …not my world anymore…

              I can say that retail organizations are chock full of analysts reading the data, rolling dem bones, and checking the omens, and the types of places that exist today are what the majority of people are willing to shop at and the companies can make money running. When people were talking about the types of places they wanted to live that had some of these amenities, I heard someone say one time: “….you aren’t looking for the right city, you need a Time Machine so you can travel to the right era…”. I’m old enough to remember when downtown department stores in Chicago and Milwaukee were full of shoppers all the time, and people dressed for work. By the time Carson Pirie Scott closed in 2018, you could go in there almost any day of the week, downtown or suburban stores and there would be no one in there shopping!

              1. brandib1977 Avatar

                In short, it’s not my world anymore either.

  16. J P Avatar

    When I was first on my own as an adult (in the mid 80’s), I had an apartment near 38th and Meridian. There was still an old “supermarket” just north of 38th and Illinois, and it was my go-to for most shopping. There was also a 7-11 (the local grocery, not the national convenience store chain) about a block or two up Illinois, but it wasn’t as nice. Both have been closed for decades now.

    That is becoming my lament – we now live in a world where everything is part of a national chain. Stores, restaurants, service providers – it is hard finding local businesses, and when I do, I cherish them.

    Last thing – I always found the name “Foodliner” to be really strange. A “Foodliner” sounds like it should be a big bus that serves non-stop meals and snacks.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I lament the chainification of the nation, as well. It concentrates too much power.

      “Foodliner” sounds striaight outta the 50s, something my grandfather’s generation would have thought sounded cool.

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