Holding on: Markets still booming in Belmont, despite hold-ups and Kluge competition
Want to go back in time, but don't want to risk leaving loved ones behind or irreparably altering the future? Here's an idea. Head to one of the mom and pop markets dotting the Belmont landscape.
Most of these stores have been around at least 50 years, and though the original owners are long gone, the new owners claim that the feel of the stores is pretty much the same as it ever was.
Beer and cigarettes may be the most popular items at these markets, but if you live in the neighborhood, they're also a one-stop source for milk, bread, canned goods, dog food, even fishing bait or– in one case– a bottle of reasonably priced fine wine.
They're a fixture and a necessity for the people who depend on them. But can these markets survive the influx of wealthier residents to the traditionally blue-collar neighborhood– as well as the encroachment of upscale businesses such as Mas, and in a few weeks, Fuel [see sidebar]?
The Hook spoke with owners of five of the Belmont markets [The Holiday Food and Deli on Monticello Road didn't make the cut because its owner lives in Denver], and learned that running a neighborhood convenience store is not all fun and games.
Most have been robbed at gun- or knife-point at least once. They work backbreaking hours, cope with shoplifting on a daily basis, and struggle with the bottom line.
But the owners of these historic stores all say the regular customers make the hardships worthwhile.
"We're here for the neighborhood," says Tommy Lynch, owner of the Belmont Market. "We know most of the people by name."
Location: 834 Monticello Loop, near Mas
Tommy and Trudy Lynch bought Belmont Market a mere five years ago, but Tommy's history with the store goes back decades.
The Market opened in the 1930s, and Lynch arrived on the scene in 1958, when he got his first job stocking beverages as "bottle boy" at age 12. By his mid-teens he'd graduated to delivery boy, toting groceries to nearby customers on his bicycle. "This was a big store," he recalls, explaining how the road in front used to be a main thoroughfare in and out of town.
Did he ever dream he'd be the owner?
"I always hoped," he says, "but you know how that is."
These days, you can find Tommy or his wife, Trudy, in the store chatting with the regulars. A photo "wall of fame" documents "big" lottery winners, and Trudy cooks up hot meals at a counter in the back.
Like many old-time store owners, the Lynches reside in a house attached to the store. Often during the day they go back and forth between the two without having to step outside.
While Belmont has been undergoing a radical transformation the last five years, Tommy says it hasn't hurt business. Even the addition of upscale tapas bar Mas just across the street hasn't affected the Market, which closes at 7:30, just as Mas is gearing up.
And as for Patricia Kluge's new gas station/convenience store/restaurant, Fuel, Tommy approves. "That is a neat name," he says. And the highbrow concept? "It shows you what money can do!" he says.
But Tommy says that for him and Trudy it's not about the green– and he doesn't expect to lose customers to Kluge.
"The Belmont Market," he says, "will always be here."
Location: 1201 Sixth Street, S.E.
Tucked away on Sixth Street, west of Avon Street, The Store, as it's officially named, is off the radar of most city dwellers. But it's been an integral part of the west Belmont neighborhood since it opened "back in the '30s," according to owner Firoz Vohra, who purchased it a year and a half ago.
Vohra had managed two other local convenience stores– Spencer's Market on Fifth Street, and Holiday Food and Deli on Monticello Road– until he made the move to ownership. "This was an opportunity to have my own," he says.
Though the most popular items at The Store– as at all the others– are cigarettes and beer, he says customers travel from as far away as Scottsville for his "special recipe" fried fish.
But while he enjoys getting to know patrons from near and far, he says running a convenience store is grueling work: He's there 13 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I don't get rest," he sighs. "I'm occupied the whole day and night."
Unlike several other market owners, Vohra says he's been lucky– he hasn't been robbed "yet." For the first three months or so, "there were problems," he admits, in the form of shoplifting, vandalism, and verbal insults, as the neighborhood adjusted to a new owner. Now he feels the neighbors look out for him.
"This is their store," he says.
Location: 800 Avon Street
"Heyyyyy, Captain!" Jason Kent, owner of the B&R Market on Avon Street, greets one of his regulars, a man whose age could be anywhere from 50 to 80, and whose arms are covered with the dark gray-blue ink of time-worn tattoos.
Shyly, "Captain" approaches the counter and asks if he might be extended a little credit. "You're good for it, right?" asks Kent. "Oh, yes," says Captain, mentioning that Monday is payday.
A few minutes later, Captain's on his way, happily armed with a bottle of Wild Irish Rose and a pack of Bailey's cigarettes.
This is not your average quick mart. Kent– like the other owners of the neighborhood markets– considers himself and his store an integral part of the neighborhood, and he's there to lend a helping hand.
Some customers, however, repay that helping hand with sticky fingers.
"The theft is unbelievable," says Kent.
And shoplifting is far from his greatest worry.
He says his store has been robbed at gunpoint on more than one occasion, including an incident in which his female clerk was "pistol-whipped." The perpetrator is still out there, and Kent says that's not a good feeling.
"My employees are scared," he says, "myself included."
But even without the robberies, there's "never a dull moment" at the store.
"It's a very strange area," he says. "I get everyone from transvestites to the high drug dealer on the block to people who can't read or write," he says.
"If I put in a video camera," says Kent, "it would make either an incredible comedy or a very sad documentary."
Location: 703 Hinton Avenue (at Avon Street)
On a recent Wednesday morning, business at Gibson's is hopping. Nodding to one man leaving with a "40" of malt liquor in a brown paper bag, owner Sun Na says he's typical of many customers at her store.
"Some people come in four to five times a day," she says, "for one bottle of beer at a time."
Business is good at Gibson's, says Na, who purchased the store with her husband four years ago. The couple had owned another market in Richmond and moved to Charlottesville when they bought Gibson's.
In addition to beer and cigarettes, which her customers demand, she says her hot lunches go quickly. Fried chicken is on display in the front, and a menu offers hamburgers, hot dogs, and other basic fare. Na says she and her husband do all the food preparation themselves.
While there have been break-in attempts at Gibson's, Na says the store hasn't been robbed since she and her husband purchased it, a fact Na attributes to "good visibility" from Avon Street.
That may be why Gibson's has the latest operating hours of any of the Belmont Markets, open seven days from 9am to 10pm.
Those hours, Na says, present the greatest challenge to running the business.
"We each work 80 hours a week," she explains.
Location: 1210 Avon Street
For Stoney's Grocery owner Lawrence Burruss, 15-hour days are par for the course. No matter that at 74, Burruss' back aches, and he doesn't move as quickly as he used to.
"It would be hard not to work," he laughs, his blue eyes twinkling.
He's not kidding. Stoney's is a second career for Burruss, who spent 48 years in the dairy business, serving as vice president and then CEO of the former Monticello Dairy Company before it was sold to Shenandoah's Pride in 1984. (Burruss stayed on as manager until 1995.)
In fact, it was his dairy work that led to his purchase of Stoney's from Stonnell Bradley back in 1987.
"I came up here to sell him milk and ice cream," Burruss recalls. "My wife told me, 'Don't go up there and buy no damn store.'"
When Burruss returned home that night, he had some news for her. "I think we got a store," he told her sheepishly.
Fifteen years later, they still have the store, and now Burruss' son Lawrence Jr.'s business, Burruss Signs, is in the building attached to the rear of the store.
Stoney's is the largest of the Belmont Markets, and Burruss says the key to its success lies in the gasoline it sells from pumps out front and in their ready-to-eat food, including fried chicken, hot dogs, and burgers. Fishing bait and tackle, he says, are also in high demand.
Crime hasn't been terrible, but Burruss says Stoney's has had its share. Ten years ago, he was robbed at knifepoint, but a surveillance video in the store helped police nab the robber.
Burruss made headlines in 1989 when his Elliott Avenue house blew up from a natural gas leak. Still, he has a laid-back attitude– even when it comes to things like robberies or theft.
When he sees someone shoplifting– which he says happens occasionally– he approaches them calmly.
"I say, 'Put it back, or I'll call the police," he explains. If they comply with his demand, he tells them, "Don't come back no more." The direct approach has worked so far, he says.
Despite the long hours and considerable danger of running a convenience store, Burruss says the perks make it worthwhile.
"I find out all the community news," he chuckles. "I don't have to read the paper."
–Additional reporting by Margot Coleman.