Davina van Buren is a writer, traveler and urban farmer sharing today's guest post about corner stores, then and now.
Cecile Crawford remembers visiting the Bessemer Curb Market in east Greensboro, North Carolina ever since she was a little girl. The bustling corner store greeted customers for more than 60 years with bountiful baskets of colorful produce before they even stepped foot in the store. Once inside, the employees—many of whom worked there for decades—greeted visitors by name, asking about their families, sharing recipes, and catching up on neighborhood goings-on.
“We would go when my grandfather went to the bank every week because it was right next door,” Crawford says. “They had beef and pork from nearby farms, fresh fruit and vegetables, and mason jars with canned goods made by local people, like the lady across town who made apple butter.”
Bessemer Curb Market closed nearly three years ago, leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the community that has deeply affected people like Crawford, who now follows a plant-based diet.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is to work 45–50 hours a week and then not have somewhere close by that’s open during the week to pick up fruit and vegetables,” she says. “Bessemer Curb Market was open six days a week with regular grocery store hours. You could get off work and still grab something on your way home to cook a fresh, healthy meal.”
A combination of rising maintenance costs for the old building, competition from a Walmart Supercenter which opened several years ago, and a sharp decrease in the number of people who cook at home drove the beloved corner store to shutter its doors after a lengthy struggle to secure funding for much-needed renovations. When the city council approved funding for a health foods store to relocate from across town in addition to a new co-op, the store’s owners, Harold and Ronda Brown Powell, publicly lampooned the town’s leadership for not doing more to help their business, which had long ago established itself as a community cornerstone.
This resentment toward city planners who embrace new, “shiny” projects aimed at stimulating economic growth in certain areas (particularly downtowns in the midst of redevelopment projects that often contribute to gentrification) instead of investing in family-owned businesses who are already there is not new. In fact, zoning laws have a lot to do with why the corner store is in danger—long before the economic decline attributed to competition from big box stores and Americans’ fondness for quick eats, zoning laws were the dreaded foe of the corner store.
After World War II, more Americans were able to buy homes and automobiles. The U.S. government invested heavily in infrastructure that promoted travel by car, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of home ownership (for whites, anyway) and the sanctity of neighborhoods. Commercial and industrial enterprises began to segregate from residential areas in order to avoid conflicts over noise and pollution. At about the same time, our food production system began to change, shifting its focus to reward farmers (by way of publicly-funded subsidies) for growing high-yield, low-nutrition crops such as soybeans, corn, and wheat rather than encouraging crop diversity. As a result, our food started getting trucked, shipped, and flown in from other regions and countries.
Many corner stores were driven out of business then, but some adapted to the times. Corner stores evolved from community hubs that sold healthy foods into pay-at-the-pump gas stations that sold an array of sugary drinks and high-calorie snacks. Today, gas stations like Sheetz are mega-corner stores with petrol, hundreds of beverage and snack options, and seating areas where customers can devour an entire meal on-site. Where is the middle ground?
I see two things happening: As more “mom and pop” shops shutter due to economic and zoning factors, two kinds of retail operations are filling the gap. Dollar stores are no longer relegated to low-income or strip mall areas; they are a staple in middle-class shopping centers now, and many have attractive standalone buildings with thousands of feet of retail space. It’s not unusual for a dollar store to open in an area where a traditional grocery store recently closed, but unfortunately, they do not offer the same level of access when it comes to nutritious foods—not even close.
At the other end of the spectrum is a return to the old way of life, and somewhat surprisingly, young people are leading the charge. People often joke about millennials being lazy, but I have observed the opposite, particularly during my time living in rural Colorado and small town North Carolina. Millennials have done something truly remarkable: out of necessity, they’ve made minimalism and self-sufficiency cool. You’ll find them homebrewing craft beers, making cheese from the goats they do yoga with, and pressing cold juices from produce they grew on their urban mini-farms. In recent years, farmers markets have experienced a resurgence, and although the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, I hope that younger generations will continue to demonstrate that farming is not only an honorable profession, it can also be a profitable one, especially with the rising interest in agritourism and conscious consumerism.
After Bessemer Curb Market closed, Crawford—who survived colon cancer eight years ago—started visiting a farmers market located near North Carolina A&T State University. Although it’s a longer drive and she has to visit on Saturdays due to her work schedule, it’s been a lifesaver for her health goals. The Greensboro Farmers Curb Market takes its name from its storied history: when the market opened in 1874 all the way til the 1960's, farmers pulled up on the curb and sold directly from their trucks. The market moved to the current site in east Greensboro in 1963. It's now housed in a former armory facility that housed reserve military training drills and equipment, just a few blocks from the original site.
The Curb Market serves the city in more ways than one. “Not only is it a farmers market—75 percent of our vendors are farmers; 25 percent are prepared food makers and crafters—we serve as a community hub,” says executive director/market manager Lee Mortensen, “One may see their dentist or kindergarten teacher that they haven't seen for 25 years,” she says. “We also serve as the city's ‘town square’ if you will, connecting farmers, food, and friends.”
The market does this in a number of ways. They provide a place for farmers and makers to sell their goods, of course, but there is also a strong focus on community building. Since the market is a nonprofit entity, they engage in education and outreach. For example, on Saturdays there’s typically a cooking class, since many residents may have never seen some of the vegetables sold here, let alone cooked with them. Customers can learn about nutrition, learn knife skills, taste-test foods, and more. Those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can double up to $15 worth of SNAP tokens if they shop at the Wednesday market, which is smaller but still offers a wide variety of nutritious foods. And not to be overlooked are the weekly breakfasts, entertainment by local musicians, and donation-based fitness classes that happen outside the building. This is much more than a place to buy ingredients, it’s a mecca for those craving soul food in the spiritual sense. And even though you can’t purchase nonperishable items or household goods here, there’s—you guessed it—a dollar store just down the road.
They may look different than the corner stores of the past, but local retail establishments can still be a part of smart, sustainable development. As more metropolitan areas seek to ease traffic by making cities more pedestrian and bike-friendly, I hope we see the return of more corner stores. We can return to a time when residents had easy access to family-owned establishments that sold fresh, healthy food—those like the Bessemer Curb Market—if we stay committed to improving the American food system. Corner stores aren’t just places to buy snacks, smokes, and lottery tickets—they are a valuable and underappreciated part of a close-knit community.
(Top photo source: denisbin)
Davina van Buren has a Bachelors degree in Electronic Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also dabbled in documentary filmmaking. She writes about travel, food, and sustainability for consumer and digital publications. She also works with brands and trade magazines to develop and implement their content strategies. Personal pursuits include distance running, activism, skydiving, scuba diving, yoga and traveling as much as possible. In addition to being a journalist, she's also the proud founder and editor of Global Gypsies Travel Club, a community of self-professed travel junkies who explore the world together. Visit Davina's website for more information.