On Saturday, one of Louisville’s last remaining neighborhood markets will close. The owners made their own minds up. Nobody drove them out of business. But even so, the demise of Burger’s Super Market, at the corner of Ray Avenue and Grinstead Drive, is an occasion to take note of, and to mourn.
Once, not so long ago, there were family-owned markets in every corner of our town. The names are forgotten to most, but not all of us: Steiden’s, Roppel’s, Downs, Best’s, Timperman’s, Klein’s, Scotty’s and so forth. Every one of them was distinctive, and some specialized in things others did not. But they all served as community builders, and as often as not, you could catch up with friends while you pushed your cart down the aisle.
I will admit my special interest in the demise of neighborhood groceries. My grandfather and father were country grocers. They operated the C.A. Burdon Store in Fisherville, Ky., for many years. It was the only store in the small eastern Jefferson County town. They sold everything from country hams to gasoline, and they thrived in the 1930s and 1940s when times were hard.
What happened to that store is typical of what occurred a lot in that era: My father went to war and came home with new ideas. He married and moved to the city, went to college on the GI bill and joined a large corporation. Our lives were modern, suburban and in many ways far removed from what my father knew as a young man.
Looking back more than a half century to the day he sold the store (to an uncle, as it happened, who closed it soon after), there’s more than a little regret that somehow we didn’t hang onto it. The building still stands, but for years it housed a furniture store. What is lost is that wonderful community center; those who remember Ike’s store in The Waltons will get a sense what it meant to the folks who lived around it.
So back to Burger’s Market. For four decades it has been a central part of life in the Highlands. Before that, the Burgers operated in the Haymarket, which was a bustling place to buy produce, meat, fish and flowers for more than a century. At their current location, they offer just about everything anyone could want: fresh produce from Kentucky farmers, wonderful cuts of meat, the best condiments and soups imaginable, imported cookies and teas, excellent coffee, and much more. The three Burger kids—Tony, Jeff and Jolene—inherited the business from their dad, who opened to store in 1958. Tony told me recently that the decision to close was personal. For so many years they have worked from dawn to dusk (and in the fall and winter, they were up well before dawn), six days a week. It was time, they felt, to move on, so they can spend more time with grandchildren and travel. Who can blame them?
In little more than a year the East End has lost two dependable markets with the closing of Doll’s (on Brownsboro Road near Chenoweth Lane) and Mike Best’s Meats (in Westport Village and before that in the Chenoweth Plaza). The city has gained some impressive high-end groceries like Fresh Market and Whole Foods, but it’s difficult to imagine picking up the telephone to call the butcher at Kroger to ask how long to cook a four-pound rump roast. I called Andy Guelda at Burger’s to ask that question not long ago and he gave me great advice.
The closing of these groceries is part of a broader phenomenon, the big-boxing of American commerce. Locally owned corner drugstores used to be ubiquitous. No longer. It’s either Walgreens or CVS or Rite-Aid. Same thing was true of book stores and hardware stores and so on. The surviving businesses in town that still stay small—Paul’s Fruit Market, for instance, and Carmichael’s Bookstores—deserve our patronage.
There is a promising development, however, concurrent with the demise of the corner grocery and that is the boom in farmer’s markets where regional farmers sell their own wares. More than 15 years ago, my Bingham Fellows group developed the FarmWorks program with advice from Wendell Berry and Sarah Fritschner, who remain committed to the effort. Now other groups have formed; a recent food summit at the Louisville Free Public Library drew hundreds who are interested in buying good, regionally produced vegetables, fruit and meat.
So when the Burgers close for the last time on Saturday, there are promising changes. But no matter what comes along, the community center they have provided for 55 years will be history.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He recently spoke with WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian about Burger’s Market. Listen below: