Saturday, November 27, 1999

Neighborhood shops inspire D.C. exhibit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — At the Deli Mart Express on Lee Street, second-generation owner Sue Brandner and her customers are on a first-name basis.

        “You see a lot of the same customers in corner grocery stores,” said Ms. Brandner. “During lunchtime, we see the business people and the courthouse crowd for sandwiches. At night, we tend to see the locals stop in for beer, cigarettes and pop.”

        Through the workweek, Ms. Brandner puts in more than 45 hours at the store. And on weekends, she checks in each day at her seven-day-a-week business.

        That kind of work ethic and easy familiarity with customers is part of what inspired Houston, Texas, resident Ellen Beasley to develop a national exhibit dedicated to the corner store.

        Now showing through March 6 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibit on corner stores features four Covington examples of the businesses that once served as neighborhoods' social hubs.

        Susan Cabot, a historic preservation consultant who lives in a former corner store on Watkins Street in Coving ton, was among those who brought Covington's corner stores to Ms. Beasley's attention. She responded to a plea posted on the National Trust for Historic Preservation Web site.

        “Corner stores are usually identified with big cities like Chicago and New York,” Ms. Beasley said. “But the grouping of Covington buildings shows that corner stores also happened in smaller and me dium-sized cities.”

        Covington buildings in the exhibit include:

        • The Deli Mart Express, 1131 Lee St. Built in 1895, the canopied building has always been a corner grocery and saloon.

        • 639 Watkins St. Built about 1885 as a grocery with

        living space above, the building housed other types of stores in the early 20th century, and it became a corner bar about 1945. In 1993, it was rehabbed as a single-family home.

        • 639 Philadelphia St. Built about 1897 as a dry goods store, it also was used as a corner grocery, with apartments above, until about a year ago. It currently contains offices and apartments.

        • 1601 Holman Ave. Built about 1900, the store recently was donated to Habitat for Humanity and it's currently being rehabbed.

        “It's the universal story,” Ms. Beasley said of the corner store. “It's the Mom and Pop business, and frequently, the immigrant. For many people coming from another country, this was their first business. Everyone in the family helped in the store in one way or another.”

        Ms. Beasley initially was drawn to corner stores in Galveston, Texas, by their distinctive appearances. Most had canopies that wrapped around two sides of the buildings, and ex tended to the curb.

        From the canopies, she started focusing on the buildings themselves, and began researching their unique architecture and their impact on the surrounding communities.

        Once neighborhoods' unofficial “town halls” serving as unofficial gathering spots, corner stores began to decrease in the 1920s, Ms. Beasley said. Reasons included the affordable automobile, technological advances in refrigeration and the emergence of supermarkets.

        Through her exhibit, Ms. Beasley hopes to promote other uses for corner stores and preserve the common 19th century landmark.

        “One of the purposes of the exhibit is to get communities to start looking at the corner stores and realize their value and their importance to the community,” Ms. Beasley said. “A lot of those buildings can't continue as corner groceries, but there are other ways the buildings can be used. We want to show how they can be adapted for other activities.”


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