Loss of Convenience Stores Felt on the Hill

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The group of neighbors who fought to buy and preserve Mott's Market has changed over the 6-month effort. Photo: Courtesy Save Mott’s Market

Another convenience store, Congress Market (421 E Capitol St. SE), closed at the end of June.

Regular customers say the owner, Mr. Kim, is set to retire. But there’s no word on what will happen at the site.

Congress Market joins several other Capitol Hill grocery and convenience stores to close their doors this year. In January, Roland’s Deli (333 Pennsylvania Ave SE) closed its doors; Mott’s Market (233 12th St SE) closed in early March.

Reactions of those who frequent Congress Market echoed comments from customers of Roland’s and Mott’s: heartache. “Oh no that’s awful news,” one Twitter user wrote in response to the closure. “The store was such an important part of the neighborhood.”

Mr. Kim declined to comment. But 7-River Mart owner (250 11th St. NE) Mr. Sam Ko said it has faced challenges as he has kept his store for nearly 10 years at the corner of 11th and C Streets NE.

Price is the Difference
Ko said he cannot offer competitive prices with large retailers due to the price of items from the vendors. He said that vendors in the Capital region of DC, northern Virginia and parts of Maryland have steep prices for smaller stores that are not able to order large quantities of inventory.

Some of the items he sells in his store are more expensive to buy from the vendor than as a customer at a larger grocery or convenience store, Ko said.

A customer sits outside Congress Market. “They work very hard,” he said. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN.

“Big stores have a price lower than what I pay [the vendors],” the proprietor noted. “The vendors give the bigger stores a lower price because they are buying in bulk. They need to make a profit [and] they make it from the small stores.”

“I thank my neighbors for coming here,” Ko said. “I can’t say keep buying more, I cannot say that, because all the customers are just like me, I’m trying to get the low prices.”

Ko said business fluctuates day to day. Ko expressed gratitude and appreciation for his customers but said the lower prices at chain retailers will continue to attract neighbors.

Those neighbors continue to support him. Ko knows many of them by name; on one day in mid-June, a little girl ran up to him as he was stocking shelves and gave him a hug as her mother paid for popsicles. 7-River is a part of the community; Ko donates regularly to Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE).

Ko he said values those relationships and the neighborhood a great deal.

A Second Chance to Save Mott’s Market
When stores close some neighbors feel the loss to the fabric of the community. One group found it so significant that despite challenges like those enumerated by Ko, they are ready to try their hand as shopkeepers.

There’s currently a second effort underway by neighbors to buy the former Mott’s property and reopen a store on site). It looks like it could really be possible: neighbors have another chance to save Mott’s Market (233 12th St. SE) —or anyway, to preserve a corner store space in Southeast Capitol Hill.

Walter Street resident Noah Bopp is part of that group, which calls itself “Save Mott’s Market”. He said it’s been a three-month roller coaster ride, and they’re at the top again.

“Basically, we thought we were closing up shop,” he said, laughing at his own choice of words. “We thought the building was sold. To have this quick reversal, the first thing we needed to do was figure out: is everybody still in?”

The group was only days away from making an offer on the 3,313 square foot, two-floor building when it was sold April 25 for $1.25 million. Now, it’s been re-listed for $100,000 more. But despite the price –and interest rate– increase in the 38 days it was off the market, the group of neighbors say they are only days away from making the offer again.

They’re still in, Bopp said. But they welcome as much help as they can get.

A Neighborhood Movement
The movement was founded on the porches of Walter Street SE, involved neighbors said.

Walter Street is a close-knit community that hosts events like July 4th parties, and, during the pandemic, a socially-distanced wedding, right in the middle of the street. “Our front porches are like a common area in a dorm, almost,” Bopp and Jordan LaCrosse said in a Zoom call during the first push. They’re two of the more than 25 people that are part of the effort.

When neighbors realized Mott’s was closing in early March, Bopp said, they felt gratitude but also sadness. The effort to preserve the corner store evolved organically from the conversations, LaCrosse said.

When they heard they had a second chance early this month, they immediately mobilized, holding meetings and beginning the formation of the LLC that would function as ownership.

But the economic situation has changed a great deal since April, when they first started the effort. Interest rates have skyrocketed, and the price of the building has increased $100,000. “I’m not sure the value of the building has changed,” Bopp observes.

Changing Situation
The changing situation means changing terms of the effort to purchase the site. There are still multiple ways to get involved, whether you can invest time or money. The lender has indicated that investments should be for a minimum of $10,000 for individuals, so those who wish to contribute to the effort work on various committees to help formulate plans and get the word out.

The vision hasn’t changed, though: “The idea is to keep it in essence like it was,” Bopp said in a previous interview, meaning a convenient place to get essentials, but “with neighborhood enhancements” —an arts or performance element, perhaps, or a rotating counter selling goods produced by neighbors. In emails and phone calls, LaCrosse adds, neighbors reiterate four traits: they’d like a space that is safe, convenient, involved with the community and accessible.

Investors have already committed $300,000. Bopp figures they need approximately $75,000 more to make their offer, which they hope to do by next week. That would cover the down payment and allow for carrying and closing costs.

Learn more about the effort to save Mott’s Market by emailing savemottsmarket@gmail.com or by visiting the website at  www.savemottsmarket.com.

“There’s this rush of emotions,” Bopp said. “In this one little corner of today’s crazy world, maybe something really good is happening? I’ve got so much hope for this.”

Elizabeth O’Gorek is a writer and editor for Capital Community News. You can reach her at liz@HillRag.com

Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com