The grapefruit is firm, the lettuce is crisp, the floors are waxed and the paint is fresh. The smiles of the staff members are as bright as the fluorescent lights. Search the city over, and it would be difficult to find a Safeway grocery that looked healthier.
But looks deceive. In two months, the Safeway at 1730 Hamlin St. NE, in the solidly middle-class neighborhood of Woodridge, will probably be dead and buried.
Safeway officials predict the cause of death will be the changing nature of the grocery business in Washington's older resdential neighborhoods.
At 7,000 square feet of sales space, the Hamlin Street Safeway is just too small to make money any more, Safeway officials say. The store's area would have to be six times greater for the store to be profitable, they say, and the land for such growth has proven impossible to obtain in Woodridge.
The Hamlin Street Safeway is one of the two smallest Safeways in Washington (the other faces Eastern Market, on Seventh Street SE). One of the largest, a far more modern store at Eastern and Michigan Avenues NE, about two miles away, is scheduled to undergo a major expansion and renovation later this year. Safeway officials say they expect and hope that their Hamlin Street customers will shop at the Eastern Avenue Safeway instead.
But the imminent demise of its Safeway doesn't mean the Woodridge neighborhood is a poor bet for a grocery. Far from it.
Eighty-nine percent of the homes in the area are owned by their occupants, and fewer single-family homes were sold there in 1979 than in any other residential area of the city. The figures indicate rock-solid community stability.
Meanwhile, family income in Woodridge, which is about 85 percent black, ranks in the upper third of the city's neighborhoods -- averaging about $30,000 per household, according to city government figures.
"It's a damned good area. We've been in business there for 28 years," John Mitchell, property manager for Safeway's Washington division, said.
"We'd give our eye teeth to have a store out there," Mitchell insisted. "It's just that our store out there isn't big enough to be competitive. Our customers won't shop in a store like this . . . They can drive to a larger store. And that's where they're going.
"We'd need to expand to stay there, and we just haven't been able to find a way to do it." If a site or another approach isn't found within the month, he added, "we'll be out of business by the summer."
Safeway officials say the Hamlin Street store has lost money steadily for three years, that its sales volume today is no greater than in 1977, that its monthly customer count has declined for four years in a row, that they could have justified throwing in the towel two years ago.
Still, they insist that they are looking for a way to keep the store open.
Perhaps the store can be sublet, as the Safeway in Anacostia recently was to a group of Koreans. Perhaps it can be remodeled, and reopened as a convenience store, without a full line of products. Perhaps land for expansion can be found along the nearby Rhode Island Avenue corridor.
"But as for staying open as a Safeway, it looks a little dim," says William Spaulding, City Councilman for Ward 5, who has worked behind the scenes for the last five months in an effort to keep the store open.
"If that neighborhood loses that store, it will deal a very, very severe handicap," Spaulding said. "A grocery is the key to the whole neighborhood. We simply have to find a way to keep a grocery store there. I'm convinced we will."
Other community leaders are far gloomier.
"I'm hoping, but I don't feel too good about the situation," say Emanuel Lipscomb, chief of the Census Bureau's foreign trade division and president of the Woodridge Civic Association.
"I've seen demonstrations, I've seen pleading, I've seen tears in other areas of the city, and Safeway has closed their stores there despite everything.
"When these corporations make a business decision to do somthing, they do it."
Neither company nor community officials have announced the Safeway's projected closing. "We don't want to see a panic situation develop when there is no reason for it," Spaulding said. "We haven't announced that it's going to be closed because we aren't sure yet that it's going to be closed."
Instead, Spaulding, Safeway officials and an assortment of community leaders have been looking for the land Safeway says it needs for expansion.
The group has run into two chief stumbling blocks.
Much of the land in Woodridge is privately owned. The most obvious candidate for acquistion, a privately owned parcel that sits between the Hamlin Street Safeway and Rhode Island Avenue and is now occupied by a used car lot, is tied up in estate litigation. "We just can't get it," says Mitchell.
The other problem is the shape of lots near the streets in Washington that are named for states. Because "state streets" run at an angle to number and name streets, "strange little triangular lots get created, and it becomes nearly impossible to put enough of them together to give us what we'd need," Mitchell said.
Spaulding has tried to locate city-owned land in Woodridge that might suit Safeway's needs. "But it just isn't there," he said. As for condemning land, "I've found out that condemning land for public use is one thing, and condemning it for a grocery store is another," Spaulding said.
Spaulding said he intends to introduce a bill in the council this summer that would permit the city government to claim privately owned land, under the principle of eminent domain, so that grocery stores that might otherwise have to close can stay open.
"But I'm afraid it'll be too late to help in this situaton, with this store," the councilman said.
If the Hamlin Street Safeway dies, some of Woodridge's long-established stability might die with it, several neighborhood residents feel.
"This is the most stable neighborhood I know in Washington," said Dora Hamilton, who for 35 years has lived in an azalea-ringed house on South Dakota Avenue less than a mile from the Hamlin Street Safeway.
"We've got beautiful homes and beautiful people here. This is the first area of the city where black people could own nice homes. I'm worried it'll become a ghetto if we don't have a food store."
If the Safeway closes, "I don't know what I'd do," says 64-year-old Gloria Robinson. She lives a block and a half away and shops at the Safeway three times a week.
Robinson lives alone, and neither owns nor knows how to drive a car. She has been shopping at the Hamlin Street Safeway "so many years that I don't even know where another grocery is."
Told that the closest other Safeway, at Michigan and Eastern Avenue NE, is two miles and two bus rides away, Robinson reacted: "Lord Almighty.I won't have a way to get there. What'll I do?"
Tawanya Carruthers, who lives on Monroe Street, six blocks from the Hamlin Safeway, is suspicious of Safeway's claims that it is losing money.
"I just can't believe they can't make money here," Carruthers said. "They take enough of my money to make money. All they have to do is sell what people want to buy."
Indeed, the Hamlin Street shelves contain some curiosities.
On a recent afternoon, only six packages of hamburger and three packages of stewing beef were for sale. Nearby, however, were nine brands and sizes of motor oil, 11 brands and sizes of flour and 17 brands and sizes of maple syrup.
Ernest Moore, Safeway's public relations director, said much the same stocking pattern would be found at any Safeway in the Washington area.
"Ninety-five percent of what you'd find on the shelves of any of our stores is the same," Moore said.
In fact, he said, Safeway carries many grocery items that don't make money because of a corporate decision that all Safeways must provide a full range of groceries. But "if we just sold groceries, we'd be out of business," Moore said.
The trend in the Washington-area grocery business is toward large "one-shop shopping" stores, where such profitable items as cosmetics, greeting cards and clothing are stocked, Moore said.
"We can't offer these items at Hamlin Street without expansion because we simply don't have the space. And if we don't offer these items, we won't be profitable. So it's kind of a Catch-22," Moore said.
Mitchell noted that Safeway has a "firm" policy of wanting to stay in business in the city. "If anybody's committed to the District of Columbia, it's Safeway," Mitchell said.
He pointed out that four Safeways are under construction in the city (although none are near Woodridge), and four existing stores are about to be expanded. At the same time, however, six D.C. Safeways are slated for closing in "the next couple of years," all of them east of North Capitol Street and all of them in much the same situation as the Hamlin Street store -- "too samll to be economically feasible in today's market."
According to Safeway officials, 30 percent of the Hamlin Street store's customers walk there -- one of the highest such percentages in the city. Officials admit they do not know what those customers will do if the store closes. "I suspect they'll have to find rides or take the bus," Mitchell said. "We never said it wouldn't be hardship."
Nor did anyone at Safeway ever say that profits weren't the name of the game, Mitchell added. "You now, for years, it's been, 'Damn you, Safeway, keep that store open,'" Mitchell said. But when we're responsible for a bottom line profit, there comes a point when that's impossible to do."
There comes another point, too, according to Lipscomb -- the point of recognition.
"People don't recognize how bad this is yet. They don't feel threatened by it yet. I think some people don't believe it. People think because the Safeway has always been there, it'll always be there.
"I'm just worried that people will recognize how important this is when they wake up one morning, and realize they need milk, and suddenly have to go halfway across town to get it." CAPTION: Picture 1, Emanuel Lipscomb of the Woodridge Civic Association in front of the doomed Hamlin Street Safeway; Picture 2, Some neighborhood customers. Photos by Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post; Chart, The Woodridge Safeway; Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Pictures 3 through 7, Customers coming out of the Woodridge Safeway were asked where they will shop if the store closes:
Will Adkins, 25, 2625 17th St. NE: "It will be an inconvenience for me because I live in the neighborhood. The closest thing is on Michigan Avenue and that's a REAL nice walk."
Fredia Tatum, 22, 151 U St. NE: "We live on U Street and this is closer to us. I think it will kind of inconvenience me and my husband. I guess we'll do our shopping on Eastern Avenue."
Patricia Livingston, 23, 3013 20th St. NE: "I usually go to the Safeway down on 18th Street because they seem to be stocked more than this one. But you've got the projects right here. There's more people going to this one. They need this Safeway."
Dorothy M. Turner, 53, South Dakota and Rhode Island avenues: "For me, it won't cause much of a problem. I'll just pick up my groceries as I go along. I probably won't go to a Safeway. I'll go to Giant. The families in the neighborhood need this store."
Bernard Brown, 57, 1507 Trinidad Ave. NE: "It won't affect me because this isn't the nearest Safeway to where I live, but it is the nearest Safeway to where I work. I can't believe it's losing money. I drive past here every day, and it's always busy."