The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Residents tried for weeks to save this D.C. institution. It’s closing anyway.

Owner Ho Sang Cho arranges groceries at the Metro K Market, an Adams Morgan stalwart for more than 40 years. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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The market accommodated their whims and needs for more than 40 years, so when neighbors heard rising rent was driving the shop to close, they did what they could to help: letter-writing campaigns, petitions and a protest. More than 1,400 people got involved in the fight to keep the Metro K Market open.

And yet, the store is still set to close by the end of the month.

Property manager Joe Borger said another grocer will replace it, but the announcement has done little to soothe agitated patrons. The failed bid to save the shop — one of Adams Morgan’s oldest institutions — emphasized residents’ desire to hold on to something familiar in a changing city.

With empty storefronts nearby, some vacant for years, residents said they worry that a new store, possibly with higher prices and a mass-produced vibe, would founder and eventually close, leaving them, ultimately, with nothing.

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“I think people should know that the business did not fail. It wasn’t unwanted or empty. It was extinguished,” said Denis James, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, who has lived in Adams Morgan since 1971. “That’s what happened.”

Eclectic but reliable, Metro K Market has for 45 years stocked an odd assortment of merchandise that adapts to what customers desire.

“They’ve sort of figured out all our weird needs,” said Cynthia Pols, a telecommunications lawyer who lives about a block from the store, which sits at the corner of Columbia and Belmont roads in Northwest Washington. “I’ll miss that.”

One winter about seven years ago, owner Ho Sang Cho said, a customer came in looking for chestnuts. He had never stocked chestnuts before, but he ordered a crate. He threw half away after they didn’t sell as well as he hoped.

The next year, Cho decided not to restock the chestnuts, so he bought a small bag as a gift to the woman who requested them months earlier. She was thrilled.

“I gave it to her for free as a Thanksgiving present,” Cho said, chuckling at the memory. “She became a regular customer after that.”

Mousetraps, mops, ping-pong balls and kitchenware lined shelves that also housed produce, wine and an assortment of Latino and Asian foods.

Cho took over the business from a cousin in 2002. It’s felt like home ever since, he said.

“I was never feeling like just a person who works here,” Cho said. “I felt like a neighbor in this community.”

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The market was on a five-year lease, paying $9,000 per month. The lease gave Cho the option to extend another five years, but the landlord wanted to raise the rent by 30 percent. Cho said the landlord also asked that Metro K Market make renovations to the building that would have cost about $150,000.

It was all too much.

Now he’s selling what merchandise he has left and plans to shut down by the end of November.

Borger said the new market will open soon after, although he declined to identify the business. The market has promised to hire as many of Cho’s employees as possible, Borger said.

Residents worried that a new store might not fit into the neighborhood in the same way as Metro K Market.

“I don’t like those big-brand stores — I don’t even go to Whole Foods,” James said. “There’s too many people in stores like that who are the kind of people who wouldn’t shop at Metro Market.”

James and other residents have called for a boycott of the new business. Others, like Pols, said they’re worried about the new store’s staying power.

Vacant storefronts dot Columbia Road NW, including a shop down the street from the market that has been empty for more than two years. Another has been shuttered for more than a year.

Along the 18th Street corridor, three storefronts have sat untouched for nearly three years, Borger said.

“I really didn’t know before I found out about Metro Market closing that all these merchants are pretty much on leases, which makes them very vulnerable to the rents going way up,” Pols said. “I just assumed they owned that building. To discover it was a five-year lease and now they’re having to close? It’s a little hard to process.”

But Borger said the new tenant is a “seasoned business” with multiple locations in D.C.

“I’m not concerned about their capacity to operate the store,” he said.

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