Six years short of a century in business, Summit Trading Co. will close. So too the post office inside the store, and the Columbia Bank branch, the butcher shop and the coffee shop where neighbors would gather as old neighbors do.
Established in 1919 by brothers Oscar and Elmer Carlson, the grocery is now owned by a pair of grandsons.
“Oscar and Elmer had a brother who died in World War I, and the family received a death benefit,” said Gary Carlson, 53, on Friday.
Gary and brother Greg are co-owners of the business, which will remain open until the last can of peas, the last loaf of bread, is sold.
Figure a few weeks.
“Their dad gave Oscar and Elmer the money to buy the store,” Gary Carlson said. “They were just ordinary guys. They worked hard; they were salt-of-the-earth guys.”
There was a trolley on 104th Street, Carlson said, and this was the turn-around, on Canyon Road, back when Canyon Road was barely two lanes wide.
“Grandpa Elmer was 19 years old. Oscar was older,” Carlson said. “It was a lot of hard work. They went through the Great Depression, trading groceries for eggs that the farmers brought in, and they sold the eggs in town to other stores. They had a smokehouse and smoked hams and bacon.”
Gary Carlson started working at the store at 13, and he has not survived the Great Recession.
“The business was really good up until then,” he said. “It wasn’t just the recession. It was a combination of the recession and competition. They’re all big-box stores. Costco, Walmart, Winco. Those are the main ones. Business started to erode in 2006.”
Summit Trading tried lowering prices, buying more advertising, advancing certain promotions including truckload sales and bulk-buying discounts.
“Most of the people in this neighborhood are blue-collar,” Carlson said. “Most people had jobs, and then a lot of those jobs disappeared. All of a sudden a lot of our customer base was on public assistance, WIC, welfare. We studied if we should remodel. We didn’t really have the money to remodel, and all of our competition was bigger, nicer and newer than we were. It was frustrating at that point.”
Frustrating and expensive.
“We’ve been losing money for the last five years,” he said. “We have been subsidizing with our retirement funds and borrowing money in hopes the business would turn around, and it hasn’t. We had more bills than we had money to pay. Expenses exceeded income. We made a decision about two weeks ago.”
At the peak, Summit Trading employed 120 people. That fell to 40. Today, count 10 on a skeleton crew.
“We’re doing a closeout. We’ve stopped all the deliveries. We’ll close by the end of the month,” Carlson said.
“Customers say they’re sad to see us go,” he said. “It’s like this store is the hub of the community. People would come in and meet friends and have coffee. This was the place where you could find your neighbors and your friends.”
Up at the checkout counter Friday afternoon, Sue Hilsendeger was bagging groceries.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 13,” she said. “When I heard the news, I was upset, mad, very sad. It’s a community meeting place.”
Hilsendeger is not an employee at Summit Trading. She’s bagging a customer’s groceries because she wanted to spend some time with a friend, who stood checking.
“I have an appointment with Social Security next week, and I’ve got some applications out,” said Marcel Berry, who has worked at Summit for the past 38 years.
“We’re going to miss everybody,” said Carlson. “It’s been fun being a part of the community. People — they’re basically good, and they’re honest. We’ve had people who found billfolds in the parking lot, and they bring them in.”
“It’s got a unique feel to it,” said customer Lonnie Stevens. “It’s the look. It’s just got a look to it. It’s too bad they’re closing.”
“It’s always been friendly,” said Alethea Carter, a customer since 1995. “It’s sad. It’s been here a long time.”
“Customers — they’re all sad,” said Heinz Brown, 56, an employee of 37 years. “The longest, he’s been coming in since 1931, he came in and he was saddened, too.”
Customer Toni Forman came to the store Friday to show everyone a family photo taken long ago. The photo showed an older, original version of the store.
“It’s hard to see something like this change,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody. They’ve worked hard to keep it going.”
“A lot of customers watched me grow up,” said Carlson.
Now they’ll watch as he moves on.