It takes a village to get a Trader Joe's

Good luck trying to buy local in Southeast Seattle. With so many people and so much money, why is it a retail desert?

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The ghost of Chubby and Tubby in 2008, a late, lamented oasis for sneakers, hardware, and other basics.

Good luck trying to buy local in Southeast Seattle. With so many people and so much money, why is it a retail desert?

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.”

Then came the racial turmoil of the late ’60s, followed by the immiseration of the 1969-70 Boeing Bust. “My sister was getting beaten up routinely in school.” His parents joined the wave of white flight, and landed on Mercer Island.

Akers, now a Realtor, moved back to Seattle, sort of; he settled in sleepy, stodgy 1980s Magnolia. (It’s awakened since.) He found it suffocating. And so he really moved back, to Columbia City: “I bought the house my parents had built. I did it for emotional and practical reasons. I saw an opportunity.” He figured the district would grow, and with his home-ground knowledge he could be at the center of the action.

“I started out trying to attract business in the late ’90s. I assessed the needs here. I called everyone — Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Kinko’s. They'd light up — ‘Oh, you have a community with that many people and you don’t have one of our stores?’ And then they would research more and come back and say, ‘That’s not a community for us.’ Or, ‘There’s not enough money there.’ ”

At first that seems paradoxical. The Rainier Valley’s 2008 per capita annual income of $28,600, as reported in the CLUE report, was substantially less than Seattle’s $40,000 but nearly as high as the statewide per capita. The valley’s median household income of $62,000 was higher than the city and statewide medians — at least partly because households are larger there than in many other city neighborhoods. Helped by relatively low prices, it has one of the highest rates of home ownership in Seattle.

And that’s not counting the more prosperous neighborhoods to the east and west, nor the affluent lakeshore. Surely there’s enough money in Southeast to support a Target or, better yet, Trader Joe’s — the shopping savior that residents pine for like millennialists awaiting the Rapture.

Akers pressed the companies he was wooing as to why they wouldn’t buy in: “Is it because of race?” (Southeast Seattle’s population is evenly split between people of Asian, African, and European ancestry.) Not at all, they said, it was about income: “You just have too many poor people there.” Akers came to believe the die was cast back in 1942, when the Seattle Housing Authority built the sprawling Rainier Vista and Holly Park projects to house Boeing wartime workers, and 1954, when it converted them to low-income housing. He and other longtime residents contend (not always diplomatically) that the Housing Authority opened the floodgates. Other housing and nonprofit agencies have poured in, taking advantage of cheap land and official encouragement to build facilities that serve needy populations extending far beyond the Southeast area.

In other words, Southeast became what Akers and other longtime residents call a “dumping ground” for every worthy project that all Seattle’s other worthy neighborhoods don’t want next door. Using that term gets them slammed as NIMBYs and reactionaries or worse by defenders (sometimes members) of the social-service operations. The issue has spawned rival community councils and charges and counter-charges of meeting-packing, misrepresentation, subversion, and betrayal. It’s a can of worms we don’t want to dive into here.

But wherever you fall on the NIMBY/dumping ground divide, Akers’ experience points toward some ugly truths about retail. Chains that can choose to locate anywhere don’t just seek territories with enough customers to support them. They consider what Akers calls a “combo plate” of economic and demographic factors, such as “leakage” (a.k.a. shoplifting) and neighborhood ambience. They go where they think customers will want to go too — where panhandlers and other signs of blight and disorder won't put them off. Many Southeast Seattle shoppers defiantly drive to Mercer Island, Renton, and other suburban venues, even if it’s just to shop at the same chain. “I drive to Tukwila to shop,” one anonymous commenter declared on the Rainier Valley Post. “I’m tired of seeing the cars get stolen and the drug deals going down at the Safeways” in the valley. I haven’t seen that, but I do periodically return Safeway shopping carts that get abandoned in the large vacant lot — a development that fizzled when the economy tanked — near our house.

Safeway, Southeast’s dominant chain, has been fitful in its commitment to the district; for years it stayed mum on whether it would renovate its grim, Stalinist-era Othello Street store, leaving neighboring developers in limbo. It finally did so — not up to the standards of its opulent Eastside stores, but enough to make “people feel safer,” says Julie Pham, whose office is nearby. “Since the remodel I see a lot more” — she balks at saying “white people” — shopping there and hanging out at its new Starbucks.

But Safeway has left its former Genesee site an underused eyesore, with a deed restriction barring new owners from putting a supermarket there. Akers and other local residents claim that the three valley Safeways charge higher prices and sell sadder produce than those in Renton and Mercer Island — again, something I haven’t had occasion to observe.

The logic seems fatal and irresistible: A cycle of fear among marketers and consumers keeps Southeast Seattle locked in its retail drought. But some happy retailers prove that logic wrong. Vietnamese suburbanites still migrate back to the Viet-Wah supermarket and the smaller shops and restaurants at Graham and MLK, and to their counterparts in the twin plazas at Myrtle and MLK; good luck finding parking on weekends. While they pine for Trader Joe’s prices, middle-class Southeasters throng to the tiny, 26-year-old PCC Natural Market in Seward Park. “It’s the best store in the chain,” says Akers. PCC won’t confirm that but acknowledges that it does terrific business, with very high sales per square foot. It’s hard to overstate the store’s importance as a neighborhood amenity and anchor; real estate agents nearly count the inches their listings lie from it.

PCC fought long and hard to expand from 9,000 to 20,000 square feet and finally won a variance. Then it decided to sit tight. The reason: It’s looking at other Southeast sites, including Columbia City. It won’t say whether it would keep the little Seward Park store if and when it sinks new stakes. But if Fremont and Greenlake can support PCC stores two-and-a-half miles apart, perhaps there’s room for two in the vast Southeast wastes.

If the Trader Joe’s folks were smart, they’d get there first. But they’ve heard that already, from plenty of other people.

This story was changed on Nov. 23, 2011 to say that the electric trolley, not streetcar, still ran down Rainier Avenue when Ray Akers was young.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.