To residents of the surrounding Prince George's subdivisions, the small red brick Safeway at the Corner of East West Highway and Riggs Road in Chillum is an old, reliable friend -- a corner store with a friendly manager. Clerks cash pay checks and offer credit to regular customers when they are a few cents short.
To officials of safeway Stores Inc., it represents red ink they must explain to stockholders -- another unprofitable grocery.
The company's plans to close the store Jan 5 brought 50 angry citizens to a protest meeting last week with Safeway executives. Company officials were peppered with shouts and demands from the crowd.
The store, which is within walking distance for most people in the neighborhood, has been part of the fabric of the aging community for the past 25 years, said neighbors.
"When you're sick and you don't come in for a couple of weeks, the clerks say, 'Where have you been? I haven't seen you lately,' We won't have that if another store moves in here," said Catherine Barron, president of the Parklawn Citizens Association.
Resident asked for a nine-month postponement of the closing, saying they hope the rising price of gasoline will draw customers who now drive farther to larger supermarkets.
Company officials offered little hope that the postponement would be granted. Ernie Moore, public affairs manager, said a final decision had been made on the issue, prompting a chorus of shouts and muttering.
"Then this was all in vain," cried Chillum resident Isabella Casey.
"I ask you please, not to close your minds," Barron said. "We're willing to work with you."
"This store has been losing money for two years," Moore said. "It is not going to get any better and I'll tell you why. Expenses in this store are one of the highest of any store in the area. Labor costs are going up and that is going to increase expenses more."
Josephine Roche, a nieghborhood resident for 22 years, blamed declining business on poor management, which she said existed until a new manager was hired a few months ago.
Others pointed to faulty freezers, a limited selection of products and a deli section that was closed long ago.
"My feeling is, Safeway just decided this is a store they could close a long time ago and they forgot about it," said Jerome Shelton, who lives a block from the store. "Sooner or later this policy of giving up on living and thriving communities is going to blow up in your face."
"I don't think there is anything sinister in our decision to operate or not to operate a store," said John Liska, a retail operations manager.
The number of Safeway stores in the company's Washington division, which takes in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District, has declined from a high of 400 to 165, Liska said.The trend in the industry is to close down older, small stores which are less profitable to operate than new, larger ones, he said.
"Changes in our industry dictate stores that are doing a tremendous volume of sales," Liska said. "The facts are, small stores are not doing enough business and they are not going to be here much longer."
"There are lot of senior citizens who walk to that store," said Broadus Taylor of the nearby Green Meadows subdivision. "I don't know where they will go. It's a real hardship for senior citizens. They can't get on buses, some of them, and it's a problem getting taxis."
Takoma Park resident Elzira Hughes said she has frequented the Safeway in recent weeks since a Co-op Consumers Supermarket in her neighborhood closed down. If the Safeway also closes, she said, she will have to travel even farther to find a place to do her shopping.
"By this spring, more and more people are going to have to walk to the store, people who drive now," said Gloria Thomas, a resident of the Parklawn subdivision that sprawls along one side of the Safeway.
"The next closet is two miles," Thomas said. "A lot of us can't take it, even though we're not senior citizens. With the energy crunch, we have to pull together or we're all going down the creek."
Liska declined when the residents asked him to sign a statement pledging to keep the store open. He said he did not have the authority to sign any document for the company. Instead, he said he would relay the community's sentiment to other company officials.
The meeting adjourned in a state of near chaos, with members of the audience shouting angrily and Barron vowing to continue to fight for their neighborhood store.
"We're not finished yet," she said after the meeting. "Just because they said they're intractable, doesn't mean we won't continue to fight them."
Barron said she learned of plans to close the store only a week before the meeting. In that short time, she said, the community rallied.
"I never seen the people come out for a meeting like this," she said. "They really hit these people right in their stomachs."