After the City’s Oldest Grocery Store Closes, Customers Look Elsewhere for Food and Community

Georgetown’s Carleton Avenue Grocery closed on October 31, leaving the neighborhood with a deeper dearth of food options.

The bright green house that served as Georgetown’s Carleton Avenue Grocery for more than 100 years was as much a history museum as it was a social hub where locals picked up a bottle of wine and cheese after work.

Its mustard yellow walls were once lined with antique signs from the neighborhood’s old pharmacy, while a collection of vintage Coca Cola bottles, coffee cans, and an unopened jar of mayonnaise from the 1950s sat atop the shelves. A large black and white photo of the old Country Inn Roadhouse, the first establishment that occupied the space in the early 1900s, hung on the wall behind the register. The store teemed with faithful customers who visited co-owner Allan Phillips, a self-proclaimed “amateur historian,” to hear about neighborhood events. Sometimes residents would drop off missing dogs they found roaming the streets, said Phillips, because everyone knew that the store was as good a lost-and-found site as it was a market.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens at a place like this,” Phillips said, profusely gesticulating as if he needed to coax out the words, his mottled gray hair tucked into a tan pork-pie hat. “Things move slower here.”

Now that it’s been closed for more than a month, the place is virtually empty, with the ragtime music that often played through the vintage Fisher stereo replaced by a deafening silence. Many of the items once scattered throughout the store will go into the Friends of Georgetown History museum down the street, which itself occupies the space of a former grocery store that closed in the 1960s.

“It’s an eerie quiet, because it’s a space that needs to be occupied. It’s a space that needs to be busy,” Phillips, 55, said while standing outside of the building that housed his store Wednesday afternoon. He added reassuringly: “And it will be again.”

Carleton Avenue Grocery was the city’s oldest grocery store that operated nearly uninterrupted since 1911.

Although it will soon be reborn into a bakery carrying some groceries under a new renter next spring, Georgetown residents say that with its closure, the fabric of the community has unraveled some. It also leaves the 1200 residents south of downtown with one less option for fresh food.

The US Department of Agriculture defines an urban area more than one mile away from a supermarket as a food desert. Georgetown was already considered a food desert since Carleton Avenue Grocery and Asian market Maruta Shoten aren’t supermarkets, but Phillips’ shop at least helped lessen the burden of living in an area that lacked access to fresh food. Some residents say they now have to drive over the West Seattle Bridge to shop at the Metropolitan Market or Trader Joe’s for staples like meat and vegetables.

Supercenters like Wal-Mart are often the cause of food deserts in small rural towns, where they tend to drive out local competition. But in Georgetown, the lack of food options has a lot to do with the area’s industrial zoning, which dates back four decades, at least, says Phillips. That zoning significantly shrunk Georgetown’s residential areas, leaving supermarkets with little incentive to stay, said Phillips. As a result, the shrinking population coincided with dwindling food options.

Carleton Avenue Grocery remained as a holdout, but it hasn’t always been safe from the other forces shaping the city. Phillips and his wife La Dele Sines learned in 2007 from city records that developers were likely going to tear down the historic building. They decided to take “a leap of faith” and purchased it from the owners, who ran it as a convenience store since the mid-2000s. In the 10 years that Phillips had been a Georgetown resident prior to the purchase, he said, he often walked past the Korean-owned convenience store that mostly sold snacks and cigarettes and thought: “If that little store ever goes up for sale, we should buy it and try to make it into more of a little grocery store,” Phillips said. They reopened the store on November 3, 2008 after renovating it and transforming it into the grocery store he’d always envisioned for the neighborhood: one replete with staples like dairy, eggs, meat, and wine.

Phillips and Sines became the tenth owners to operate a store in the space under the Carleton Avenue Grocery name since 1911, shortly after Georgetown was the last small town to be annexed into the city of Seattle. Built in 1904, the building served as the Country Inn Roadhouse saloon and brothel for a few years prior to becoming a market.

They renovated the house for over a year, during which time Phillips began unearthing historic finds. He discovered an electrical inspection tag from 1906 and old photos of previous stores in the attic.

Along with maintaining its history, Phillips recognized the importance of partnering with other small businesses to ensure the store’s viability. When customers came to his shop for a bottle of wine, Phillips would suggest that they buy their dog food at the pet store on Airport Way, or that they fill their prescriptions at the nearby pharmacy. If residents began running errands at supermarkets in nearby West Seattle or Beacon Hill, Phillips feared they would soon buy their groceries there too. His concerns were actualized only a year after they opened, when the Georgetown Pharmacy closed down and residents began picking up their medicine and then groceries at supermarkets elsewhere.

Thanks to a rotating crop of faithful customers, the store held on for several years despite barely breaking even, says Phillips. Georgetown resident Tamlin Marx, an electrician and artist, attested that the store helped bind together the community. “There’s certain people that if I wanted to talk to them about something, I would just go to the Carleton at the time that I knew that they’d go. And a lot of folks did that,” Marx, 55, said on the phone while driving home from work on Monday. If residents needed electrical work done on their home, then they’d head to the store after work because they knew that Marx usually shopped there prior to closing time. “It’s a fairly big loss in that … there’s no supermarket in Georgetown, so it’s now difficult to find items beyond what you would expect at a convenience store,” Marx said. Now he has to shop at a smattering of stores in West Seattle and Beacon Hill to get items that he once bought at the Carleton Avenue Grocery.

Jon Dove, a 57-year-old gardener who has lived in Georgetown for most of his life, recalls his mother sending him to the store as a child to pick up groceries. Now that it’s closed, he’s doing much of his dry food shopping on Amazon Prime. But Dove said he doesn’t find the closure to be overly symbolic, since the fate of the building doesn’t align with the common narrative of a tear-down followed by redevelopment into condominiums. “Gosh, Georgetown is changing so much. What’s one more change?” Dove said, chuckling.

One of those changes could end Georgetown’s status as a food desert. “Current zoning in Georgetown excludes most locations for grocery stores,” said Seattle Office of Economic Development spokesperson Joe Mirabella in an email to Seattle Weekly. But, he adds, the city is reviewing its industrial lands with community stakeholders, “which could result in more availability for grocery store friendly zoning in Georgetown.”

In the meantime, independent stores need to be geared towards destination shoppers, says Larry Reid, president of the Georgetown Merchants Association. “It was one of the dying breed of small community grocery stores that I think are having a hard time competing in the new economy,” Reid said about Carleton Avenue Grocery. Although he’s owned Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown for 11 years, he continues living in the Central District because he says that there aren’t enough services in Georgetown.

But Reid is optimistic that Deep Sea Sugar and Salt, the new bakery moving into the space, will appeal to the destination visitors that Georgetown relies upon. “We think that that fits in with our general strategy of destination … attractions,” Reid said on behalf of the neighborhood’s merchants association. “It should add immeasurably to the appeal of the neighborhood.”

Phillips and Sines are renting out the bottom floor of the house to Charlie Dunmire, who plans on opening her bakery in late March or early April. Dunmire already owns an Airstream shop at the Georgetown Trailer Park Mall, and says that she will offer cakes and coffee, as well as some grocery basics like beer, eggs, and pasta at the new store.

“When I first decided that I wanted to turn it into a cake shop, I knew right away that I didn’t want to take the grocery aspect away … that would always be a part of it,” Dunmire told Seattle Weekly on Monday. “I know that everyone’s been really sad to see the Carleton Avenue Grocery go, but I think it’s going to be a really easy change over,” she added.

And Phillips agrees. He and his wife will continue living in the upstairs portion of the house and survive off of part-time jobs and revenue from renting out the store. Phillips said that he has faith that the newest iteration of the shop will allow the grocery store’s legacy as a social hub and historical destination to continue.

As he stood outside of the store on Wednesday afternoon, Phillips greeted regular customers who pass by on Carleton Avenue. He became teary-eyed as he shared that one woman who passed by had lost her home to an arson fire shortly after the store opened nearly a decade ago. After the fire, the customer told him that she was just glad that the Carleton Avenue Grocery hadn’t burnt down. The neighborhood banded together, allowing the customer to stay at their places, and Phillips placed a collection jar in his store to help her secure a new place. Phillips’ voice quaked and his nose turned bright red as he explained why the story always nearly moved him to tears: “People care … How can you not be emotional about something like that?”

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