There’s something sacred about the bond between East Georgetown residents and their favorite corner store, and it’s a bond that not even sky-high property values can break.
Scheele’s Market, a quaint grocery at the corner of 29th and Dumbarton streets NW, celebrates its 120th birthday this year. It’s by far the oldest corner store in Georgetown, and certainly the neighborhood’s most beloved—not only for history’s sake, but also because the wealthy hamlet of Georgetown’s East Village is surprisingly underserved by full-service grocery stores.
It’s not your usual food desert, but a marmalade Sahara.
That’s because of zoning, not a lack of demand. Most of the area is residential with only a dusting of commercial lots. Little corner shops including Scheele’s and nearby Morgan Care Pharmacy, which occupy the bottom floors of residences, were grandfathered in. It would be tough for a similar business to open nearby under current zoning rules, so old storefronts like Scheele’s take on a special value.
“I come here every day. Sometimes twice a day,” says Gus Schumacher, a Scheele’s devotee I encounter outside of the store on a Thursday afternoon. A 51-year resident of Georgetown, Schumacher knows the inside of Scheele’s like it’s his own pantry. “Look at all these vegetables,” he says, giving me a tour of the eggplant and green peppers. “It’s rare in a corner store to have these kinds of fresh vegetables.”
Schumacher happens to know something about food: An economics whiz born into a farming family, he’s worked on agricultural issues for the World Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and has spent much of his career thinking about food availability. He’s the founding director of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that helps improve access to fresh foods in rural and urban areas, including D.C. So when it looked like the neighborhood was about to lose Scheele’s several years ago, he was one of the concerned citizens who sprang into action.
Two Georgetown residents—Malcolm “Mike” Peabody and Marilyn Melkonian—founded the community group Friends of Scheele’s in 2008, when the Scheele family put the building on the market after more than a century of ownership. Worried that the new owner might flip the place as a high-dollar, single-family home, the Friends spent four years trying to keep Scheele’s on the corner.
The property sold in 2011 to Jordan O’Neill for $1,002,000, according to public records. By 2012, the Friends had signed a covenant with O’Neill that keeps a market on site for 15 years in exchange for $70,000, a deal trumpeted in a fundraising letter from Friends of Scheele’s. Peabody says the money was raised over four or five months. The letter also says Schumacher, Melkonian, and Peabody each gave at least $5,000 in non-tax-deductible funds. (Melkonian and O’Neill did not immediately return a request for comment.) All that for convenient eggplant? Yep—and Schumacher says it was worth it.
“For me to get in the car, and go all the way up to Safeway or to Whole Foods or whatever the supermarkets are, and then park and then come back, [that’s] an hour and a half. OK? My time is worth something,” Schumacher says. “The neighbors and I felt, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s keep the store here.’”
Grocer Dongjuk Kim has run Scheele’s since its previous owners, the well-liked Shin and Kye Lee, retired in 2012. Kim keeps the shop stocked with the kinds of refined items you’d expect Georgetowners to want: organic quinoa, imported pesto, Greek yogurt. It’s invaluable, even to the neighborhood’s executives and attorneys, who theoretically could shop wherever they want—and it becomes even more essential as neighbors reach their 70s and older.
The lack of grocery stores in the area helps Scheele’s stay necessary, too. Not that there aren’t some options: On P Street there’s a 7-Eleven—not a favorite among residents, but seemingly huge with cops and contractors—and Q Street NW has Sara’s Food Market, similar to Scheele’s but not as well-stocked. Where Stachowski Market and Deli now sits at 28th and P streets NW, Griffin Market used to compete with Scheele’s. That shop closed in 2011.
Running a small grocery in the East Village is risky, but more for the cost than anything else. Crime, of course, isn’t much of an issue. In 1980, the Washington Post reported that Scheele’s had been robbed for the first time in its history. Shin Lee says during the entire time he and Kye Lee ran the store from the late 1980s to 2012, they were robbed once. But the rent was high and hours were long, Lee says—7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, with a commute to and from Alexandria, then later, their present home in Lorton, Va.
Now, the shop’s demanding hours as well as its customs are Kim’s. As regulars come by, breezing in for Chardonnay while their dogs luxuriate on the sidewalk, he lets some of them pay later. In store tradition, he keeps about 70 customers on a credit system. They stop in, get whatever they want, and pay when Kim hands them a monthly bill. Schumacher says he’s had his account for 35 years.
To Schumacher, there’s no replacing this shop—and not just because of the convenience factor. It’s a social thing, too. “We all meet here, all the neighbors,” he says. “It’s become kind of the centerpiece of our little micro-neighborhood.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery