Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Friday afternoon, I popped by our local Bloom grocery, looking to snag some food and supplies for an overnight "man-trip" to West Virginia with some old friends.   It's the closest store to us, a seven-minute walk from our home.  It has only been in operation for a few years, replacing a frayed Magruders that had been there for just about ever.  

To my dismay, the store had signs all over the front of it announcing it's imminent closure.  It weren't just our Bloom, neither.  The Dutch holding company that owned the brand evidently wasn't making money on it.  So they are now, in the BizSpeak of their US CEO, closing all their stores to "solidify our U.S. operations and enable our company to focus on our successful brand strategy repositioning."   The success of their brand strategy repositioning comes as a great comfort to the five thousand souls they're laying off, I'm sure.  A bummer for them, although only a minor bummer for us, as there's also a Giant, a Safeway, and a Harris Teeter within a two mile radius of our home.  Retail density is one of the few advantages of living in an inner suburb, and not out in a small town.

Like, say, my recently adopted bi-weekly church home in Poolesville, which has in living memory only had one grocery store.  Poolesville, hermetically sealed away in the growth-restricted Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, stands as a kind of last redoubt of Small Town America.  It is the Helms Deep of denominationalism and the family owned grocer.  

From the moment I arrived in Poolesville this last October, I knew the family owned grocer was in trouble.   

Selby's was one of the first places I saw and heard about in the little 'burg where my little church lives.   As a family-owned and named small town grocery store, it was one of the few remaining examples of a dying breed.  It was one of those "hubs" of the community, a place where folks could go to shop, where girl scouts could camp out to hawk cookies to passers-by, and where pastors of local congregations could put up flyers announcing events at their churches.

It was in putting up my very first flyer that I noticed the unmistakable marks of a business on its last legs.  Light foot traffic and empty, unstocked shelves mean only one thing.  Suppliers are drying up.  Credit is short.  Restocking can't be done.  

It felt a great deal like other businesses I've watched go under.  Corporations are not people, not quite, but small businesses die in much the same way human beings die.  One system fails, then another, then another, until the cascade makes continuing existence impossible.

The scuttlebutt amongst the folks who actually live in the town was that after a long run, Selby's was finally succumbing to the same cultural and market forces that have taken down Mom-and-Pop stores everywhere.   The Walmart in Germantown may be nearly 12 miles away, but what's 12 miles?   Your average soccer/ballet/karate mom puts in twice that before breakfast.  And the Harris Teeter that recently encamped on the Western front of Darnestown?   That's just 8.4 traffic free miles from P-ville.

David sometimes beats Goliath. But if Goliath is wearing powered Chobham ceramic composite armor and wielding a AA-12 Combat Shotgun with Frag-12 rounds, the odds get considerably worse.  The greater selection that comes from larger stores, the increased leverage with suppliers that comes from being a Big Box Corporation, and the expectation-meeting advertising and store-design resources that come with brand marketing, those things are just too much.  

Now that the going out of business signs are up, though, the challenge for this little community is that with the loss, it will become a slightly less desirable place to live.   Not having the option of shopping locally may feel like a minor inconvenience for those used to driving everywhere, but come the next Snowmageddon, not being able to walk to get groceries will be notable.  More significantly, it will be more difficult for those for whom driving is an issue.  

Where to get groceries, if cash for gas or a car itself is lacking?   There's a CVS for milk and eggs.  There's a friendly but pricey organic food store run by the local klatch of Buddhists.   Whichever way, it's going to be a challenge for those in the community who are struggling to get by.  The local pastors are already wrassling with what that will mean.   

It is also having an effect of the geist of the town.  The closing of Bloom will mean a bit more blight on one of the strips in my native Annandale.  But Bloom was a recent and unsuccessful incursion by a faceless multinational corporation.   

It's a very different context than the environment in Poolesville.  The depth of relationship, the personal knowing and histories of a small town, well...that makes the closing of a place like Selby's more difficult.  When it has a face, it's more than just losing a business.