Losing Stock 

The independent Westhampton Super Market somehow hangs on — barely.

But today the neighborhood grocery store located at 5815 Patterson Ave. doesn't have the patties. It has blood-red lamb — but the $10 chops are too expensive, Parrish says. So she settles for two Salisbury steak patties seasoned with tomato sauce, peppers and onions. They cost $1.32.

"I'm a product of the Depression," Parrish says. "I married a poor man. He used to know what we were having for dinner by what was on sale."

A sale on meats led Parrish, who lives nearby on Three Chopt Road, to Westhampton Super Market decades ago, before her husband died. Today habit, as much as low prices, keeps her coming back. She pushes a cart that holds the Salisbury steak patties, a bundle of celery and her cane.

"The empty shelves bother me," she says of copious inventory that's noticeably missing. "But I like the feeling I get here."

These days, if you walk into Westhampton Super Market, you'd think the store is close to closing. Pockets of emptiness mark the shelves. Looking for a six-pack of Gatorade Edge, cool blue? How about Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper, stroganoff? Or a one-pound bag of frozen Hanover sweet peas? The store has shelf spaces for all the items, they're just not in stock.

"I'm not going to lie to you, the last six months have been really difficult," says David Wilson, the store's general manager. So much so that the store's proprietors, Mabel and Jim Price, who are in their 80s, have recently sold two of their four Town and Country Market stores, one in Deltaville and one in Goochland County. Only the Fork Union store and Richmond's Westhampton — what Wilson calls the "town" store — remain. Money made from the sale of the stores and auctions liquidating everything from fixtures to heavy-duty freezers will go toward restocking inventory.

"What you see is evidence of our financial problems," Wilson says of the gaps and empty freezers. "Our customers have been scared we're closing. But we're not. We're fighting hard."

Yet you might not notice the effort; it's that subtle. Instead of looking toward some gimmick or transformation, the market hopes to show that its reputation for having fine meats, fair prices and diligent employees — of which there are about 25 — will be enough to keep it afloat.

Like it or not, there are only so many customers like Parrish, Wilson says. That this is true seems to reflect everything from the store's recent hardships to its old-school philosophy: What you see is what you get.

This year the Westhampton market celebrates 30 years in Richmond. Even Wilson confesses he's amazed by the store's survival, as if to say success may be better measured by an ability to persevere rather than progress.

As a neighborhood grocery, Westhampton Super Market fills an unglamorous and meager niche. It caters to senior citizens, carrying individual portions of food items and products associated with old age. But in a climate where competition appears greater than ever, is merely surviving enough?

"It used to be you'd never see grocery stores three-quarters of a mile from one another," Wilson says. Today, they're often blocks apart.

There are the big leaguers: Ukrop's, Kroger, Food Lion and now Wal-Mart. There are specialty grocers such as Joe's Market, Fresh Market and Ellwood Thompson's. And then there are the stores that have become kitschy by reinventing themselves or by marketing their cachet as a Richmond tradition, such as the Westbury Pharmacy or the nearby Stonewall Market.

Meanwhile, Westhampton Super Market remains unchanged. On a recent afternoon, big band music plays over a PA system and the beep-beep sound of the scanner can be heard from anywhere in the store. Checkout workers wearing green smocks stand at two of five lanes. They greet many of the customers by name when they walk in the door and steer them, likewise, toward the exit when they leave.

At any given time there may be a customer or two in each of the seven aisles — from pickles and olives to the right to frozen foods to the left. Along with Parrish, Arthur A. Brown is among them. A large man, he wears a black T-shirt that reads "Big Daddy."

"One day they have it, the next day they don't," Brown laments of available goods. He comes to the market weekly to do the grocery shopping for an 85-year-old widow who lives on River Road.

"This is the only store she shops," he says. Here, for instance, he can buy butter in two-stick packs, eggs by the half-dozen and small, sweeter-tasting bananas that he buys for himself. What's more, his employer insists her meats come from the market: prime rib cut on demand, broiled hen and a center cut of pork. Her weekly bill ranges from $37 to $90, Brown says.

A sign on a cooler reads: "Don't want the whole cake, take home a slice." Lemon, Boston cream and red velvet varieties are on sale for 99 cents. Wilson's wife, Peggy, bakes most of them. Today, she works with Bernice Williams behind the hot counter. Peggy Wilson spreads chocolate icing on cupcakes, while Williams, who has worked at the market for 18 years, serves barbecue, macaroni and cheese, kale and rice pudding — whatever dishes she chooses to make each day. Her specialties are deviled eggs and chicken-and-vegetable soup. The eggs come four for $1.59, and Williams says they always sell out. She does solicit for her soup, she says: "I have a list of people I call when I make it." S


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