For years, Lena Hummer, 75, and her husband Luther, 80, have walked the four blocks from their apartment to the Safeway at 1918 14th St. SE - the only supermarket in their Anacostia neighborhood.
Yesterday, the news was out. Their Safeway, located at the intersection of 14th Street and Good Hope Road, will close in two weeks.
The store is a victim of high rates of pilferage, a deteriorating building and low profit margins, Safeway officials said.
The Aug. 11 closing of the Safeway threatens to leave an estimated 10,000 black, low-income residents - who, like the Hummers, live within walking distance of the store - no choice but to shop in the small and more expensive neighborhood markets or pay to ride public transportation to the nearest supermarket a mile or more away.
"We need that store bad," said Mrs. Hummer, who, with her husband, lives on Social Security.
At the same time, concerned local businessmen fear that the loss of the store, which attracts a steady flow of customers to the small shopping area in which it is located, may force them out of business because people will shop elsewhere.
"I think I might lose 15 to 20 percent of my regular customers," said Al Russell, the local merchants' association treasurer who sells eyeglasses about a block from the supermarket.
While Safeway officials sympathize - they have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to arrange for an independent grocer to move into the soon-to-be vacated supermarket - they say their own profit and loss figures dictate that the store must be closed.
"The sales have declined to a point where it [the store] is marginal," Safeway spokesman Tony Statom said. "The building is in need of substantial repair. We can't justify fixing it because we can't see where we would recoup it."
The "substantial pilferage" of meats, canned tuna and canned salmon, plus the presence of loiterers outside the store, also have "contributed to the unprofitability" of the outlet, he said.
The loss of the Safeway is part of a trend in which major supermarkets have closed their less profitable operations. Most of them happen to be in the poorer sections of Washington.
With the closing of the Safeway next month, only three supermarkets will remain to serve the estimated 115,000 people who live south of Good Hope Road in Anacostia. As a whole, the District appears to lag far behind its neighbors in supermarkets per capita. Currently, 40 supermarkets serve its 691,000 residents, while Prince George's County, for instance, boasts 75 supermarkets for its population of 672,000.
The area where the Hummers live is one of the most impoverished in the nation's capital. One of every five residents receives food stamps and one of every six receives welfare, according to city statistics.
The average income in the area is $2,000 below the city average of about $13,000, statistics show.
Safeway officials note that 20 percent of all sales at the store to be closed were paid for with food stamps.
In an area desperate for the essentials, the loss of a store like the Safeway looms larger in the lives of the poor than it would in wealthier areas, everyone agrees.
"That store [Safeway] is the anchor of that commercial area," said Bill Washburn, vice president for planning and physical development for the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, a federally funded non-profit organization trying to stimulate commercial development in the area.
"What are we going to do?" asked Odell Walker, 68, who walks to do his shopping since he does not own a car. "I hope somebody can do something about it. It really puts a burden on the people around here. They don't have cars and they live on fixed incomes."
According to Washburn, 20 to 25 percent of those living in the area do not own cars. They, like Walker and the Hummers, are now faced with the prospect of either taking a taxi to the nearest supermarket - at a round-trip cost of $2.80 - or waiting up to 30 minutes for a bus.
"We can be more independent if we can walk to the store and not have to ask people to come over here and take us," said Mrs. Hummer.
There are some in the community who think that the community itself is partly to blame for the loss.
A flyer, printed by the Good Hope Merchants Association and handed out at a public meeting called this week to discuss the closing, noted that residents have been silent. "We have watched the vandalism. We have seen the hoodlums and children pilfer food stuffs. We have watched the shoplifters.... As a result the supermarket is losing business, but we are the real losers."
Crime, and the fear of it, have taken a toll on the number of customers who visit the store, Safeway officials say. Residents agree.
"People are afraid to come down here because of the people loitering," said Beatrice Nixon, who lives nearby. " They [loiterers] look like tramps. If you don't hold your pocketbook tight, they got it."
Police say that they try to clear out the loiterers by regularly driving through the area and telling them to move on. But the moment the police leave, residents say, the loitering starts up again.
Whatever the problems, those who live there want the store to stay. To voice their concern, they plan to hold a rally at noon today to protest the closing. City Council member Nadine Winter, who represents the area where the store is located, said she is attempting to meet with a Safeway official who has the power to reverse the decision.
" we want a food store there," said Safeway's Statom. "We know it's needed. But we can't stay there." CAPTION: Picture, Anacostians shop in neighborhood Safeway that is to close soon. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post