Mott’s Market is a building block of my daughter’s independence.
Mott’s Market, located at Gessford Court and 12th Street SE, is just a walk south down the court from our back door. When my eldest turned five, I knew I had to prepare both of us for her autonomy. So, I started sending her to Mott’s for baking soda, bread or flour.
She would turn at the corner and step out of my sight —right into the eye of the camera linked behind Mott’s counter, where owner Ki (pronounced ‘Kee’) could watch over the last 40 feet of her trip. It was a supervised journey, I like to say, “from me to Ki.”
But Mott’s Market, which has served the area as pantry, treat cupboard and safe spot for probably more than a century— will close for good on Friday, Mar. 4.
My daughter is downcast—there’s nowhere near enough, or with someone I trust so much behind the counter, for her to shop by herself. She isn’t alone.
Mott’s serves the neighborhoods south of Lincoln Park. Gessford Court is tucked in their back yard; the close-knit community of Walter Street sits on their front steps. Walter Street resident Carolyn Noble Davis said that as the news spread down the block, residents were “devastated. They’re like family,” she said of the Chos.
Sleeping in the Stock Room
Ki and Roy Cho have been behind the counter at Mott’s since 2009. Neighbors remember their perseverance during the epic storm of Snowmageddon 2010. “They had a little alley snow hill for the little kids,” wrote neighbor Elizabeth Festa in a social media post, “and the owner slept in the shop so they could open it the next day.”
Ki laughs when she recalls that day, noting they didn’t sleep in the unit above the store —there was a tenant —but instead camped out in the back stock room.
Just the day before we spoke, Ki saw one of the neighbor children, Theo, who was a little boy playing outside during the storm in 2010. “He’s 14 years old now,” Ki said; “I was okay until I saw him.”
Seeing Theo made her emotional because it brought home memories, she recounted. It showed her much time has passed as she has seen the neighborhood grow up and change. She remembers the jubilation at Obama’s 2009 election, the 2010 snowstorm, the community. Her own children, two sons and a daughter, have left home and graduated from college in that time.
Always on the Corner
Nobody can remember when there wasn’t a corner store on site. Purpose-built in 1916 as a store and second-floor home for Samuel Gotkin, the site appears to have been a corner store ever since.
It was the site of minor scandal in 1956, when the Washington Post reported that the Republican Party had paid owner Henry J. Rubin $40 to use his S & A Market as the location for a staged film in which an actor praised the help “he” had received from the Small Business Administration (SBA).
It was called Mott’s Market as early as 1969 and kept the name through various proprietors until 1984, when Troy Mott took over the shop. The sign has remained ever since, through Mott and subsequent owners the Choi family, who rented the store to the Chos after they were introduced by mutual friends.
“When I first moved here this was one of the first stores I came to,” said Gwen Dillard as she purchased crackers and soap at Mott’s on Wednesday. For the past twenty years, she has lived on 13th Street SE, just a short walk from the Mott’s entrance. “I hate the thought that it’s closing. This is the kind of store that makes a neighborhood.”
Sara Dube agrees. She and her spouse visited the store Tuesday afternoon. They live up on Independence and frequent the store for bread and milk. Their son, Elliot, is the latest in a long line of students at Watkins Elementary that love to stop by for an after school snack. “It’s so sad,” she said, as a group of elementary-aged cyclists pulled their bikes up to the front plaza. “There’s nothing else around here besides CVS. We’ll miss them.”
“No Other Choice”
Ki Cho said they didn’t want to close the store, but they had no other choice. “Business was slow,” she said. “I couldn’t make it work until December.”
The Chos do not own the building, but they own the business; their lease ends in December 2023. Ki Cho said that sales had slowed over the past few years, which she attributes to the pandemic, yes; but she also points to challenges on the supply side and rising operating costs.
In late 2021, a real estate agent approached the Chos with an offer to buy the business. However, Cho said that the landlord declined to extend the lease to facilitate a sale. Ki believes the building, which includes a rental unit on the second floor, will soon be offered for sale. (The Hill Rag was unable to reach the building owner for comment).
Farewell to Mott’s
There is no guarantee that Mott’s Market will be revived. Once ubiquitous throughout the District, many corner stores have closed or long since become homes. In 1958, the zoning code was changed so that corner stores would default to residential when their leases lapsed. That changed, but in 2013, zoning to permit corner stores in residential areas was limited amidst resident concerns about trash and liquor sales.
The use of 233 12th St. SE as a store has been grandfathered in, said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) for the area Steve Holtzman (6B05), who said he was sad to hear the news. “Mott’s has been there for a long time and is one of the very few corner stores left on Capitol Hill. They’ll be missed,” Holtzman said.
The structure is a contributing building in the Capitol Hill Historic District, Holtzman noted, meaning changes cannot be made to façades visible from public space without review by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), and it can not be torn down.
But, in regard to the future use of the property, as a store or as a residence, that’s mostly up to the owner to decide, he said. “Many people, myself included,” he said, “would love to see the space continue to be a corner store.”
Too Young to Retire
It’s not clear what’s next yet for the Chos, either. Ki Cho said that she and Roy will take a little break, but then will look for new jobs. “We’re too young to retire,” she said with a laugh.
But she becomes emotional as she discusses her feelings about closing the store and leaving the community. She’d like to work on improving her English, so she can better communicate with her neighbors and help out in her community. “I’d like to help people make a better life and a better society,” she said.
Ki said that she has really appreciated seeing her customers over the last week of business, and especially the chance to say goodbye. She said she and Roy leave the store with regret they can no longer serve their neighbors, and also with affection.
“I feel sorry for them because we can’t keep the store open, [that it will] give you guys the inconvenience,” Cho said. But she wants to ensure that her customers throughout the years know how grateful she is.
“Thank you for being our customer,” Cho said. “My customers will be in my heart. Thank you for supporting us, for supporting small business.”
Mott’s Market (233 12th St. SE) closes for good 8 p.m. Friday, Mar. 4. (202) 546-6847
Mar. 4, 8:30 a.m.: This story has been updated in light of research from @BarredinDC that shows that the store at 233 12th St. SE has been called “Mott’s Market” since at least 1969. The Hill Rag is grateful for the clarification.