Walkabout: Pittsburgh grocery markets are making return to help stock city

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Less than two days before last Saturday's opening of the 52nd Street Market, co-owner Dora Walmsley was stocking refrigerator cases, delivery trucks were unloading and the green committee of the Upper Lawrenceville planning group was due in several hours for the inaugural community meeting in the market.

"I know it's crazy," Ms. Walmsley said of the scheduling mash-up, "but ..."

Community was what she and Deirdre Kane were looking to serve, and build, when they charted their course last summer as co-owners of the 800-square-foot market. Neither has small business experience, but they had enough faith in their neighborhood's support and its need for a place to walk to for quinoa and kombucha, chip-chopped ham, Pop-Tarts and, of course, bread and milk.

Until eight years ago, there had been a small market at 601 52nd St. as far back as anyone can remember.

In popular culture, the neighborhood market is a piece of nostalgia, but populist culture keeps bringing it back. Small markets resonate on the human scale of a neighborhood. Those that have survived the supermarket either have a specialty, their ears to the ground or both.

In the 21st century, a successful neighborhood market is most likely at the crossroads of emerging demographic diversity. Its inventory must satisfy the old-timer, the aging sophisticate, the young family, the foodie and the hipster -- in, say, 1,200 square feet.

Rob Collins has hit the right note in Highland Park with the Bryant Street Market.

"It's insane how busy it is," he said. "I sell 1,000 sandwiches a month. That pays the rent and the electric bill."

Mr. Collins is gearing up to open his second market in the former Doug's Market in the Central North Side. Doug's was barely cold, having closed late last year, when Mr. Collins came in to turn the lights back on. The latest iteration of that storefront, at 1327 Arch St., will be the Allegheny City Market. He expects to open it by the end of the month.

"We'll have all kinds of conventional products, but also organics and local produce and [community-supported agriculture]," Mr. Collins said. "I'm really, really excited about it. It's a beautiful space, an old-school corner store with tin ceilings.

"There are five neighborhoods where a market that size could open tomorrow and do as well as I do [at Bryant Street]," he said, adding that one of those is Upper Lawrenceville.

Ms. Kane and Ms. Walmsley surveyed that neighborhood to find out what people wanted, and they covered their cases and shelves with 200 Post-it notes for customers to write on. The result is an inventory that says as much about where Upper Lawrenceville is going as where it has been. They stock Naked protein drinks, quinoa, kale and tofu not far from Turner's iced tea, canned goods, chips, crackers and sundries.

To open, they raised $10,000 in an online campaign, received a grant of $9,000 from the state Reinvestment Fund -- a fresh food financing initiative -- and got a $30,000 loan from Bridgeway Capital for opening inventory and working capital.

The owners will continue to work at their other jobs -- Ms. Kane as a production analyst at Highmark, Ms. Walmsley as volunteer coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. They have hired Chet Vincent, a local musician, to manage the store.

Ron Curilla was born and raised around the corner on Holmes Street and, in his retirement, has been popping in to help out. He put his back into moving some refrigerator cases and has offered moral support to the owners.

"He has been a great advertiser to the neighbors," Ms. Walmsley said.

Mr. Curilla remembers the former store there from his childhood through his adulthood, including a blackjack machine "and all the older ladies who would be back there smoking. They've got more healthy stuff now," he said. There was no quinoa back in the day, he allowed, "but I'll try it, and if I like it I'll have my wife buy it.

"People who have moved out of the city tell me, 'Dude, you could sell your house' " due to the neighborhood's improving outlook, he said, but "that's one reason I wouldn't want to move."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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