Up in the tangle of apartment buildings that is Oak Grove Street, a hubbub of activity overtakes the middle of the block. People dash back and forth across the street, and as you approach, a rainbow of color flashes vibrantly from below ground level — sunflowers, aquamarine blue, a happy neon "open" sign. Welcome to Oak Grove Grocery.
When Bill and Debbie Rahn bought the McGill apartment building on Oak Grove Street 35 years ago, they also inherited the adjacent mom-and-pop grocery store, then already 60 years old and wedged into the basement of the building. Built in 1920, it's a holdout from another era, with vintage window panes, hand-painted signage, and a bell on the door.
Looking back, ("Where did the time go?"), Debbie says that along with the product and equipment (and all their attendant woes), she inherited a whole bunch of friends.
"I don't think of them like my employees and I'm the boss. They're all my friends. This is home."
Her feelings weren't always so warm and fuzzy. When her husband told her she would "get to run the grocery store," she says, "I was thrilled." She says it so you know: She was not thrilled. She inherited the staff, yes, but also the ancient equipment and stock: "The cans were bulging." There were the old coffin-style freezers, the door that opens directly onto the dusty street, the business model that was a sitting duck for crime back in the '80s. They've been held up at least four times over the years, one incident trapping an employee in the cooler overnight, another perpetrated by a man later found out to have been sticking them up with a Norelco razor.
But she came to realize how the neighborhood relies on the place, an almost revolving door of sidewalk activity, of stoop-sitting revelry, of needs and wants, of nourishment. Some of the staff have been there as long as Bill and Debbie, some longer. Some have passed away. They stay throughout the decades among the rows of cigarettes and lighters, the Trojans strategically hung on a high back hook behind the counter, the Little Debbies and the cereal and the frozen pizzas, and the new products too — the kombucha and the Peace Coffee and the little stock of fresh local veggies provided by their employee, neighbor, and community gardner Robert Skafte.
They stay because it's home.
Originally, the neighborhood had three such groceries of its kind, but Oak Grove Grocery is the lone survivor. Debbie says she's only able to maintain because they own the building, and because they've spent years infusing cash into, rather than out of, the business just to keep it afloat.
Many years they barely break even. But she can't close it. The store has been grandfathered in; the city would never allow such a place to open today — there's no parking, modern refrigeration equipment won't fit into the space, the handicapped ramp is usable but not up to of-the-moment specs, and on and on. If it closes, no store will go into its place.
"And if it closes, I think this neighborhood will be a much different place."
She's right — for a street with no retail except for this, it's delightfully vibrant. The stooped-over old man in a three-piece suit stopping in for a coffee, the new infusion of Millenials who can still get away with a steady diet of frozen pizza and Haagen Dazs, the neighbors who call Debbie and the rest of the staff by name (and sometimes, nicknames), the little kids in shorts and stained T-shirts who need their penny candy and popsicles. It makes you want to stay all day, just to watch the entire world turn before your very eyes. And Debbie says sometimes people do just that, for better or for worse. People constantly ask to use the place as a film set, but she doesn't grant those requests anymore. "They jam up the aisles and my customers can't get in to get the things they need!"
Those things? The five top-selling items are Ben & Jerry's ice cream, frozen pizzas, especially Heggies, which Debbie recently brought in by special request (she'll do that within reason but she had to draw the line at pine nuts), cigs, milk, and depending on who you ask, sodas and juices or Oreos — they carry a full selection of the latter including the Birthday Cake flavor.
"If you start to look around and see all the weird stuff we have here, it really draws you in," says Skafte, who's been with the store for 11 years, lives across the street, and in fact was drawn in by the tofu and soy milk he didn't expect to find there. Shortly thereafter he began stocking shelves. He also runs the community garden and is responsible for the selection of locally grown veg in the cooler section: kale, lettuce, and green onion for now, more as the season allows.
Paperclips, fly swatters, incense, sidewalk chalk, mousetraps, muffin tins, votive candles, can openers, lint rollers, duct tape, gardening gloves, wine glasses. The entirety of the store is no larger than half a standard Super America. Smaller than that. "Because someone will come in and ask if we have paperclips, and now I don't have to say no."
Oak Grove Grocery doesn't like to say no. They stay open 364 days a year from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closing only for Christmas and the evening of their own holiday party. As for the other major holidays, Debbie gives the staff the option to work. "And someone always wants to work, because they worry that someone in the neighborhood is going to come in and need something."
They still charge some people on a running tab system, even though Debbie says the official policy is not to. "But then I go behind the counter and there are 30 slips hanging." She sighs, then chuckles. And everyone always pays eventually.
"We have to think about starting to retire, or something," says Debbie, mentioning that she and Bill own four other apartment properties that they still maintain with the help of their son, but she can't afford to pay someone to do the job that she does at Oak Grove Grocery. But last winter they did slip off to Florida for a month and a half.
"And everything continued to run, just like normal."
218 Oak Grove St.