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At peak, District Grocery Stores collective comprised 300 mom-and-pop shops

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 6:17 PM

I was born in Washington in 1940. One attraction when I was old enough to walk or bike around the neighborhood was a District Grocery Store (DGS) at 14th and Arkansas NW. It was a place to buy a cold soda (in a non-refrigerated cooler with water and a block of ice in it) and snack. I saw other DGS stores around the city so it must have been a chain or a form of franchising. When I returned to the D.C. area in 1972 after being away at college and the Air Force I didn't see any DGS left. What management structure did DGS have and when and why did the stores close?

- Dick Miller, Rockville

The history of marketing in Washington - that is, the buying of food, not the shilling for a product or a politician - began with the city markets: purpose-built, centrally located halls where vendors could sell to customers. (Eastern Market, built in 1872, is the remaining example.) As the city expanded outward, small grocery stores opened in neighborhoods far from downtown. These were the archetypal mom-and-pop stores run by families, more often than not Jewish families.

In 1922, a dozen of these small grocers decided to pool their resources and form a cooperative: District Grocery Stores. At its peak, around 300 stores in Washington and the suburbs were members.

"DGS was one of the largest cooperative grocery chains in the country," said Melvin Jacobson, whose father, Isaac, owned a grocery store at 10th and K NW and was president of DGS from 1930 to 1943. "They were able to buy directly from manufacturers like General Foods and Kellogg's and Campbell's Soups."

The size of the cooperative allowed DGS to negotiate better prices. In the late 1930s, Isaac Jacobson oversaw the construction of a DGS warehouse at Fourth and D streets SW. Right on the Pennsylvania Railroad line, it had its own siding so suppliers could unload their goods directly into the building. Mornings were a flurry of activity as trains and trucks bearing fresh fruit, fish, meat and dry goods arrived. There was a cold room for meat. Green bananas were hung in a steam room to ripen gradually.

In 1963, The Post's William Raspberry described how DGS worked: New members paid $2,500 toward the association's operating capital. Stores that wished to use the DGS name - about half displayed the distinctive orange and green sign - paid the cooperative $6 to $20 a week, depending on sales volume, for advertising costs. Other markets kept their own names but were able to buy from the DGS warehouse.

Hard work could pay big dividends for striving immigrants such as Sam Eig, who ran a DGS at 21st and K NW and then a liquor store on Georgia Avenue.

"Sam Eig saved his money, began buying property in Montgomery County and then in the '30s sold the store," Melvin Jacobson said.

When he died in 1982, Eig was one of the largest property owners in the county. "Others did the same," Melvin said, "but not on the scale he did."

Like many downtown retailers, DGS members were hit by the riots that broke out in Washington in 1968. But the dynamics of grocery shopping had changed long before the riots.

Photos of DGS stores well into the 1940s show the merchandise stacked up into ziggurats behind counters. Shoppers told the grocer what they wanted. He retrieved it, rang it up and bagged it.

When Giant opened its first "self-serve" supermarket in 1936, the writing was on the wall.

DGS was dissolved in 1972. Some traces remain. The warehouse is now the Washington Design Center. Magruder's on upper Connecticut Avenue NW is a former DGS. And if you go to Rhode Island Avenue and Fifth Street NW, you can spot an orange and green sign above a shuttered storefront: District Grocery Stores.

Said Melvin: DGS "had a good run, and they helped a lot of people who owned the stores. And, of course, it gave the people in the neighborhoods a decent place to shop, too."

For an excellent history of Washington's Jewish grocery stores, visit the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's Web site, at www.jhsgw.org. Click on "Exhibitions," then "Online Exhibitions." Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.

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