I’ll admit that when it comes to neighborhood shopping, my standards are high. I got spoiled 20 years ago living near the mother of all retail corners, at Sixth and McGraw on Queen Anne. In that one-block strip sat my physician, dentist, and optometrist; a good pint-size supermarket (Ken’s) and a tiny organic food store; the bakery that later became Macrina but was better then; a video store; and a fine non-chain stationer and pharmacy. (Yes, there were such establishments then.) Three blocks down McGraw was a gas station with an ace mechanic and one of two hilltop hardwares, where they never asked for receipts when you returned stuff and told you to just pay later if you forgot your wallet.
Four or five more blocks got you two full-size supermarkets, a cheap produce market, and a pet store and model shop (if those are what turn you on). There was another pharmacy, Salladay’s, where you could drop off your utility payments and buy an old-fashioned toy. On birthday-party Saturdays, you’d see the other neighborhood dads there, picking up last-minute gifts. I could have gone weeks, even months, getting all my errands done without starting the car or working up a sweat.
That neighborhood retail nirvana ain’t what it used to be. Like the Liebowski Dude, Ken’s and Five Corners Hardware endure, nearly unchanged. So do the big supermarkets. The rest of those amenities have moved or folded; independent drugstores, stationery stores, and gas stations with ace mechanics have gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Dry cleaners and chic spas and body-work studios have proliferated. Still, Queen Anne has gained a cozy independent bookstore (a whooping crane, not a passenger pigeon) and more restaurants and bars than anyone would have imagined possible. As neighborhoods go, it’s still a garden of pedestrian-accessible delights — a main reason people pay through the nose to live there, even in these hard times.
I can’t help remembering all that with a pang when I contemplate the retail offerings of my new neighborhood, Brighton Beach, a beachless stretch in the Rainier Valley. The vast expanse of Seattle has some delightful, quirky little shops and a rich range of restaurants, mostly concentrated in one short strip of Columbia City. Elsewhere, it’s a terrific place to eat and shop for food, if you like eating cheap and ethnic, especially Vietnamese. Its little international shops and flea markets, and various gradations in between, are fun to explore, breathing in the startup aspiration, but hit-or-miss when you need something. And it’s got enough auto-repair and body shops to fix half the beaters on the West Coast. Proprietors in those fields face a retail glut: “Margins are low, because there’s so much competition nearby,” says Julie Pham, president of the MLK Business Association. Her father, Kim Pham, publisher of Nguoi Viet Tay Bac (Vietnamese Weekly News), expects many of them to leave the valley in coming years. One African body-shop proprietor tells me he’s trying to sell and get out; price wars are killing his trade.
But in other ways the area's a retail desert. In 2009 the city commissioned a study from the Virginia-based Community Land Use and Economics Group on retail resources, deficiencies, and opportunities in the Rainier Valley. It found that businesses in the valley sell less — in most cases, severely less — than standard business models would predict for the population there in 11 out of 13 retail categories. They supply only about one-seventh the expected demand for electronics and appliances and one-quarter of the demand for furniture and home furnishings. Despite the profusion of exotic restaurants, which draw devoted adventurers from outside, the valley does less than two-thirds of the $70 million “food services and drinking” business it should be able to support. Perhaps that has something to do with their low prices.
The valley’s sales exceed its demand in only two categories: notably groceries, where it should support $83 million in business and instead does $156 million, and “building materials and garden equipment,” where it exceeds the model more modestly. The apparent reason: the valley has four mainstream supermarkets plus several Vietnamese/Chinese markets, one excellent and one quirky bakery, a likewise excellent seafood shop, and one big-box building supply (Lowe’s, on the site of the old Sick’s Stadium). Southeast Seattle’s other neighborhoods — Judkins, Mount Baker, Lakewood, and Seward Park to the east and Beacon Hill to the west — have none, and some of their residents shop here, and least for those items.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Take those building materials, a supposed area of strength. Neighborhoods in the near north end are chockablock with hardwares and specialized building supplies; at least nine in Wallingford, eight on Stone Way alone, and perhaps as many in Ballard. Southeast Seattle, with a population of about 115,000, has that Lowe’s, plus an old-style lumber yard, Stewart Lumber, at its north end. Nearer the valley’s midpoint, the late Chubby & Tubby, an idiosyncratic but charmingly practical general retailer, had a hardware section and a loyal clientelle, but it folded eight years ago, supposedly for personal rather than business reasons. If you need nails in Southeast Seattle, you must drive up to five miles on busy streets to that Lowe’s or McLendon Hardware in Renton and, if the line’s long or you get some particularly inexpert help at Lowe’s, spend an hour buying them.
So imagine my delight a couple weeks ago when I noticed a new storefront sign in Hillman City, graphically similar to those over many pho shops: “888 Northwest Garden Supply. Indoor-Outdoor Garden Supplies.” I needed clover seed for winter ground cover, but as soon as I entered I knew I wouldn’t be in the clover here. (I finally found it at City People’s Mercantile on Madison.) “Uh, we don’t sell seeds here,” the young clerk said. What they did sell was lots of high-powered fertilizers and grow lights. Evidently their clientele practices a more lucrative sort of gardening. Maybe it’s retail synergy; there are three marijuana dispensaries within half a mile.
But though there’s no new construction going on, people still fix up their houses down here just like everywhere else. Wouldn’t enough of them opt for convenience, proximity, and service to support a Rainier Beach or Hillman Hardware, similar to the Ace and True Value stores that thrive to the north? And shouldn’t untold other business opportunities just wait to be filled in the retail desert? The CLUE consultants thought so: “We believe that Rainier Valley represents one of the most overlooked opportunities for retail development in the Seattle metropolitan area,” they concluded, listing a number of “favorable characteristics” that would attract retail investment.
Ray Akers thought so too. He views the valley from a unique dual perspective. Akers grew up in Columbia City in the halcyon 1950s and early ’60s. “Columbia City bustled. It was thriving, eclectic, diverse.” He remembers the classy Cleo’s Dress Shop and Rector’s Men’s Shop, Grayson & Brown Hardware, and the soda fountain at the drugstore where Geraldine’s Corner sits now, and the electric trolley that still ran down Rainier Avenue, connecting other healthy commercial districts: “It was a string of pearls.”
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