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Column: Duluth’s corner groceries are a vanishing breed

Fichtner’s on West First Street fell victim to fire in 2006. (Photo: DNT archives)1 / 4
Neil Glazman, owner of the European Bakery, which closed in 2008 after 93 years. (Photo: DNT archives)2 / 4
Marc Sienkiewicz, owner of Loop Foods, in front of his Lakeside store in 2003. (Photo: DNT archives)3 / 4
Mike Myre, owner of Mike's Romano's Grocery, in 2009. (Clint Austin / / 4

At one time, you could find a corner store in just about any Duluth neighborhood. The 1973 Duluth City Directory lists 69 stores under the “Groceries and Meats-Retail” heading. The list includes a few large chain markets like SuperValu, National Food Stores and Piggly Wiggly, but the vast majority at that time were one-of-a-kind family-owned neighborhood shops. From east to west, smaller markets like Tonkin’s Grocery, London Road Market, Taran’s Food Market, Seventh Street Groceries, Plets Grocery, Tony’s Market, Ideal Market and Mac’s Grocery dotted the map.

Fast-forward to 2013, when only nine unique Duluth listings appeared under the City Directory heading. With the closing of the last downtown holdout in June of last year, Jacqui’s Market & Deli (formerly Romano’s Grocery), the only neighborhood markets remaining today are Fourth Street Market, Gannucci’s Italian Market and the Whole Foods Co-Op.

Good food and good gossip

Almost everyone past a certain age has a story about the corner store in the neighborhood of their youth. These small operations helped define neighborhoods in an era when sidewalks were considered a necessity and not a nuisance. They were not just convenience outlets for busy people; they were social hubs and godsends for local residents without cars and for older people who didn’t or couldn’t drive. As abundant as they are, today’s convenience stores are located in high-traffic areas and serve mainly as repositories for unhealthy, overpriced foods. The corner grocery offered items from all the major food groups AND junk food (and often locally produced bakery and meat items, and local gossip to boot.) Adam Pine and John Bennett’s 2011 study entitled “Food Access in Duluth’s Lincoln Park/West End Neighborhood” provides an interesting look at a local example of the issue of food deserts. It can easily be found online via the search engine of your choice.

Family affairs and ethnic offerings

The factors that contributed to the demise of corner groceries are well known. The days when a small store can survive the rigors of a stressed economy and a trend toward upscale development appear to be gone. (On a happier note, the Whole Foods Co-Op announced in February that it will open a second location in West Duluth.)

The success of the neighborhood grocery store, usually run by generations of the same family, can be attributed in large part to the hard work and long hours put in by the owners. Some of the store closings in recent years have been documented in “obituaries” in the Duluth News Tribune. The stores never die quietly; there are always sad goodbyes and reminiscences.

Here are just a few of the fondly remembered markets:

A downtown favorite, European Bakery, which sold a variety of food staples in addition to its baked goods and ethnic foods at its 109 W. First St. location for 93 years, closed in 2008. It also boasted a collection of cookie jars behind the pastry case.

First Oriental grocery, last located at 8th Avenue East and First Street, went through a number of rebirths at different locations over the years and finally succumbed to market pressures in 2009.

Another recent victim of the economy was Bayside Market on Park Point. It graced the corner of Minnesota Avenue and 19th Street from 1972 to 2008; before that it was known as Clem’s Market. Dick Gajewski and family made it a destination for Park Point residents and for customers far and wide who came to buy their famed meat products. Gajewski learned his craft from his father, Ed, a butcher who owned Community Market on 60th Avenue East and Superior Street for many years. Ed had moved Community Market to the Superior Street location in 1963 from its 2 W. 8th St. location. It was originally owned by his father, John.

Fichtner’s Sausage and Meats lives on in the memories of many as a great place to pick up one of the best hot lunch values in town. It was run by members of the Fichtner family until Terry Premo, owner of Premo’s Home Market in West Duluth, purchased it in 2001. Fichtner’s occupied the building at 134 W. First St. from 1962 to 2006, when a fire brought it down. Premo’s itself burned down in 1999.

The Lakeside neighborhood supported a small grocery store, Loop Foods, for 61 years, from 1942 to 2003. In its early days, customers didn’t troll the aisles and fill a grocery cart; clerks pulled the groceries off shelves behind a counter. Its last owner, Mark Sienkiewicz, blames the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Superior Street construction for the major drop in sales that led to its closing.

Glader’s Grocery on Raleigh Street is fondly remembered by west-siders. Wendy Glader ran it pretty much single-handedly for many years, with her Pomeranian and an 80-year old picture of Jesus for company on the slow days. One thing that probably kept it going until 2002 was the store credit Glader allowed.

The site of Taran’s Marketplace at 19th Avenue East and 8th Street is now At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Café restaurant and wine bar. Taran’s was an outlet for European Bakery items and meats from Wrazidlo’s. During the blizzard of January 1996, it stayed open and even delivered groceries to stranded seniors.

The current Wrazidlo’s Old Worlde Meats on Central Entrance has its roots in Frank’s Meats and Groceries, which operated out of a building at 2019 W. Superior St. Frank Wrazidlo was the original owner, and his sons took over the business in 1976. The Lincoln Park store closed in the early 1980s and has since been razed.

Ye really olde food shoppe

Once upon a time there was even an independent grocery store in downtown Duluth. Gershgol’s Economy Market occupied most of the upper side of the 100 W. block of First Street and boasted a parking lot on the roof. A conveyor belt carried groceries up to the lot. It survived until the early 1980s with a few name changes. Frank Taran, who managed the store at one time, went on to open Taran’s Food Market.

Doesn’t it make you wonder what today’s kids will be reminiscing about 40 years from now?

Maureen Maloney is a reference librarian at the Duluth Public Library. This story originally appeared in June 2013 on the Duluth Public Library’s local history blog. Sources: Duluth Public Library clipping files and industry files; Duluth city directories, Duluth News Tribune.