Union Station’s mom-and-pop stores deal with change

Correction: The article incorrectly referred to the Pret a Manger sandwich chain as French. The name is French, but the company is based in Britain. This version has been corrected.

September 8, 2011

Train commuters ask for so little. An open seat. No track work. And maybe, just maybe, after an especially hard day, a cold beer or glass of wine to ease the ride.

Enter Union Wine and Liquor, the one place in Union Station where a person could buy a six pack to forget a bad day and a lottery ticket in hopes of a better one. A place where men in expensive suits rubbed shoulders with those in standard-issue uniforms, united by a common goal: a stress-reducing buzz.

At a time when the nation has grown used to businesses and people retiring before their time, a shuttered store might mean little, and one moving to a nearby location even less. And yet, the empty socket where Union Wine and Liquor sat for about two decades before it was forced to move to a less desirable spot in the station has not gone unnoticed — or unlamented.

Commuters and other small-business owners view the move as another blow against the station’s mom-and-pops, which have seen their ranks weakened in recent years while nationally known operations have opened in their places. For them, the change is not just about the loss of a convenient fix, which, let’s be honest, has been missed. It’s about what Union Station — described in anticipation of its opening more than a century ago as “the finest station in the world” — should offer the nearly 100,000 people who pass through it each day.

“It’s just turning into every middle America shopping mall,” said B.J. Taylor, 34, an editor of a health-care publishing company. “People don’t come to D.C. to see Chipotle and Victoria’s Secret and Potbelly. They come to see the unique stores. There are still a couple of those stores, but who knows how long they’re going to be there.”

For 12 years, Taylor has taken the MARC train between his Laurel home and the station, and in that time, has formed friendships with other commuters. About a dozen of them have grown so close that they have a tradition. Each night, they meet in the same train car at the same time and share a drink. Always, it’s been from Union Wine and Liquor. “They know us by name, and we know them by name,” Taylor said.

While many passersby have noticed the store’s absence in the past few months — questioning nearby retailers about its move — Taylor said he and several others grew concerned enough about its fate that they went one step further. They called the New York-based company that took over the station’s lease five years ago to ask about its vision for the future.

Where, they wanted to know, was the station heading?

Union Station Investco, an entity of Ashkenazy Acquisition, bought the 99-year lease to the government-owned building in 2007. At that time, the neighborhood around the station had changed dramatically, and the company had to assess how best to cater to commuters, visitors and locals, said Stephanie Mineo, vice president of leasing for Ashkenazy. One need was for “hipper food offerings,” she said, and as a result of bringing in several, the station has seen increased retail visits.

“When a commuter comes through here and they see change, many of them think it’s negative,” said Mineo, whose office is in the station. “And it’s not. It’s a positive thing.”

Those who point to the disappearing mom-and-pops, she said, don’t realize that nationally recognized establishments such as Ben and Jerry’s and Taco Bell are locally owned franchises.

“We only have 200,000 square feet, so it’s really hard to be everything to everybody. But if you care and you try, you can get pretty darn close,” Mineo said. “Of course, we’re going to have people who don’t like what we’re doing. But that’s everywhere. You have neighbors who don’t like how you mow your lawn.”

One critic of the changes is Stephen Toth. Until November, his family ran Tschiffely Pharmacy at the station for about 20 years.

Toth said business had been suffering for about five years, but his decision to close came after he received a bill last year saying he owed about $20,000 for 2007. For him, it was a message that management didn’t care whether the station had a pharmacy. (Mineo said they tried to work out a “very favorable” deal for the pharmacy to stay.)

“In my experience, my clients are not loyal to the name Tschiffely. They’re loyal to me and my brother, and they were loyal to my father when he was alive,” said Toth, 34. “You go to a mom-and-pop not because it’s a small business, but because it’s a person. . . . And that’s what Union Station is going to lose.”

“We’re just one of the casualties,” he said. “There are many.”

Also gone in the past several years: a coffee shop, a wings place, a luggage store, an art framing place, a bar and grill, and a cookie shop that, said those who can remember, started in the station decades earlier as a push cart.

That the liquor store is moving to the lower-level food court by the restrooms — a space Toth said he has seen several businesses rotate through — is not the issue, he said. It’s about what that means for other independently owned establishments.

“It’s showing you how strong a large company can be to push around a small one,” he said. “And the small one can do nothing but say, ‘Thank you, can I be pushed again?’ ”

On a recent weekday, Soula Parnelli, 66, walked through Union Station. Every few yards, someone hugged her or waved in her direction. George Lopez, 77, who runs two kiosks topped with hats and purses, smiled when he saw her. He used to play Keno at the liquor store, which sat across from his stands.

“You should pay me a commission, because every day, every moment” someone comes by to ask what happened to the store, Lopez told Parnelli. “Women. Men. Everybody.”

Parnelli, with an accent that reveals her Greek roots, asked whether he’d be willing to hand customers fliers telling them of the new location, which was under construction.

“That is a smaller place, right?” Lopez asked.

“It’s a little shoe box,” she said.

As Parnelli tells it, she might never have bought the liquor store 26 years ago if it hadn’t been for a sarcastic remark. She was a waitress at a restaurant in an annex to the station when her manager joked that it was too bad she didn’t have any assets, or she could buy the liquor store next door. To show him — although she wasn’t quite sure what “assets” meant — she bought it that day.

At the time, she was a 40-year-old divorcee, earning $1.75 an hour plus tips. She bought it with almost all of her $40,000 in savings.

“That day, I went down on my knees and said ‘God, help me. I put all my money in there. Don’t make me fall on my face,’ ” Parnelli said.

Part of the store’s success, she said, has come from its location. For 19 years, it has sat in the same spot within view of the gates — a place that made it visible to new customers and convenient to loyal, hurried one. Among its regulars were congressmen, out-of-town baseball fans and commuters looking for a quick soda (or something harder). Former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams said that he went there some days to pick up a bottle of water and some nights to grab a bottle of wine. At the new spot, Parnelli estimates she will lose about 50 percent of her business and questions whether she is delaying an inevitable closure.

The same afternoon Parnelli spoke to Lopez, she peeked in the door to check out the construction at her old location, which closed July 15. The glass walls were barricaded. The inside, gutted. Parnelli brought a hand to her mouth and fought back tears.

“This was my store,” she said. “They took my life away.”

Parnelli said she felt she had little choice but to move. A few years ago, she said, an employee of Ashkenazy told her the store was a prime location and suggested she offer to pay more than what she was already paying each month in rent. She didn’t. Later, she said, they told her she would have to move and showed her potential spaces. None, she said, were comparable. Finally, late last year, Parnelli said, she received a letter stating she would have to vacate and after months of negotiations, a deal was reached for her to leave altogether. Parnelli said that it was her customers and employees, some have been with her for more than a decade, who pushed her to ask whether she could take another location instead.

Mineo said that she can’t discuss private negotiations but that the company “cut a very fair deal” with Parnelli and that the store remains in the station “because we do care about the building and the tenancy.”

Mineo said that a mom-and-pop called Tops, which offers healthful food options, will move into part of the space vacated by the liquor store and the post office, which also moved downstairs. Most of the area will go to a British sandwich place, Pret a Manger, which means “ready to eat” and has locations in New York, Chicago and Hong Kong.

Parnelli said she hopes to open Union Wine and Liquor at its new location this month.

For Taylor, that can’t happen soon enough. Since the store closed, he and his friends have adjusted. They no longer take turns picking up the usual order: two six packs and a box of wine. Now, it’s each person for himself. Some bring it from home. Others walk blocks out of their way.

“Were just counting down the days,” he said, “until they open up again.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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