By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
By early afternoon yesterday, the Magruder's farmers market and deli in Cleveland Park had acquired a somewhat Soviet aura. Most of the shelves had been cleared of their contents. The items that remained were a random assortment: some bottles of fruit juice, a few boxes of cream cheese, a carton full of cucumbers and oranges.
Yet longtime customers continued to arrive in a steady stream, determined to make one last purchase before the shop that many consider a neighborhood institution closed its doors for good.
"It's so hard to see it go. . . . It's locally owned. It has character. This is exactly the kind of place that makes this such a fabulous neighborhood," sighed Anneliesa Alprin, 36, an oral history consultant at Georgetown University, as she scanned packages of reduced-price salmon.
By the standards of the privately held company that owns the store, it is hardly a historic landmark. The Magruder's grocery chain has been operating in the Washington area since 1875 and was bought by the small group of families that now owns it in 1967. The Cleveland Park location was opened a little more than a decade ago in a faux federal brick shopping strip lining Connecticut Avenue.
But as other businesses in the strip came and went -- including a Blockbuster and a Halloween decoration shop that left two storefronts vacant -- many residents of the upscale Northwest Washington community came to see Magruder's as a local anchor.
They also appreciated the modest scale of the shop, which is far smaller than the chain's seven remaining groceries in Maryland and Virginia.
With its blue-and-white tile floor and narrow aisles, the store was reminiscent of the corner markets that dot more urban cities such as New York.
"You could get to know the employees," said Ramona Roland, 79, a housecleaner from Argentina, as she searched through the produce bins. "Everyone is so nice to me here."
Vivian Thurman, 45, a personal trainer who works at a fitness club next door, liked the convenience. "This is the place I'd come to pick up anything I forgot to buy during my big weekly shopping at the supermarket. . . . It's small, so you're just in and out," she said, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
But the shop's intimate size hampered its success, said Gary Bortnick, vice president of operations for Magruder's.
"When we envisioned this we thought a smaller concept would work. We added prepared sandwiches, good produce, what we think is some of the best gelato in the city. . . . But in today's world, people want to do their full shopping in one place, and there's just not enough room for us to serve them in that location."
With the lease up and the landlord demanding higher rent, Bortnick said, company officials decided to call off their experiment in New York City-style retailing.
Yesterday, Bortnick tried to be philosophical as he oversaw the dismantling of the store's equipment.
"We had a good 10 years, and now it's time to move on," he said, shrugging. "We still have a great flagship store in Chevy Chase. Hopefully our customers will go there."
Then he stopped and rubbed his forehead.
"But it's painful. This is painful."