Market Crash

There certainly are bigger, better grocery stores all over town, and other players that have come and gone. So why did the death of little old Keller’s IGA in Clifton mean so much?

A little before 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 6, I was driving my dead mamma’s Mercury west on Ludlow Avenue, creeping through the epicenter of what locals call “downtown Clifton”—the short stretch bookended by the fountain at the corner of Ludlow and Clifton Avenues and the CVS a ways down the street. Metros idled in the passing lane at the stop in front of Sitwells Coffee House, and all manner of pedestrians—college students, regular neighborhood eccentrics, and their upper-middle class counterparts—crisscrossed the street against the light.

It was one of those dreary Cincinnati winter days, wet and gray. I was headed to Take the Cake, down the hill in Northside, anxious to beat the 3 p.m. weekday lunch deadline when, stuck behind a No. 17 bus, I spied my peripheral friend Crazy Joe Bailey getting on. I sometimes offer Joe a ride, and he talks my face off during the short trip about vintage furniture (a shared obsession), music (another shared obsession—which I purchase and he only listens to for free at Shake It Records until asked to leave) and upcoming parties (where Joe sucks down free wine and hits on the ladies).

It crossed my mind he was probably just getting off his third-shift post at Keller’s IGA, where he’s been a stocker since before our paths first crossed more than 17 years ago. I never thought to glance left toward the grocery store. Had I, I might have seen with my own eyes what I found out that night on the evening news: Keller’s IGA, a Ludlow Avenue fixture since 1939, had closed abruptly that afternoon when co-owners John Vierling and Charles Dugger lost the store’s vendor’s license, forcing the Ohio Department of Taxation to shutter their store for failure to pay $270,000 in back taxes and penalties, according to Vierling.

My immediate reaction was: WTF?

My mouth went dry and my heart actually raced a little, the way it does when sudden news causes a fleeting, deeply painful thump. I ran the tape in my head of the cast of characters I’d observed and gotten to know over the years, and worry piled upon worry. The tape played thusly:

What about Joe?

What about the stone-faced, Medusa-haired store manager who always wore her blue Keller’s button-down Oxford shirt buttoned to the neck?

What would happen to Mr. Tony, the old man in the raincoat saddled with all the shopping bags, rumored to be a genius translator, who sat in the front window gathering strength for the walk home to nearby Terrace Avenue?

Where would all the car-less students and senior citizens shop? And how would they get there?

And what about me? What will happen to my mini-reunions in the produce section with folks I haven’t seen for ages and may not see again? Where will I get sushi and an Orangina to sneak into a movie at the Esquire? And where—can someone please tell me—will a single, childless black woman be able to buy essentials such as a solitary stick of butter or a half loaf of bread?

In early January that answer was: Nowhere, that’s where.

In retrospect, my visceral reaction to Keller’s closing is directly related to a 40-year-old childhood memory of my mother shopping at an A&P near the then-bustling downtown of Hamilton, Ohio, where I grew up. The stores were similar: Both small and easy to manage, populated with a cast of regular characters, each harboring the same sallow lighting and well-worn floors, not to mention narrow, nearly identical parking lots, which inevitably led to a lot of jockeying for those coveted spots closest to the door.

That Hamilton store is long gone, and now here was Keller’s following suit. There were stories and grapevine gossip trickling out about what was going on and why. I had to see for myself. So a few days later I made the hajj and found myself standing on the sidewalk with a damp cluster of like-minded pilgrims facing Clifton’s version of Mecca. Beyond the plate-glass windows the store was dark, but the green digital displays on each cash register lit up like little beady eyes; the meat coolers were still illuminated, and groceries still lined the shelves. It was like the Rapture had come and swooped up no one but the grocery store’s shoppers and employees.

In a freezing rain we huddled in front of the doors that used to automatically swoosh open, reading a note posted by co-owner Vierling, the grandson of founder John O. Keller, who’d started the business at Findlay Market and died in 1956.

Here’s what Vierling’s note said, in all capital letters: UNFORTUNATELY, EFFORTS TO ACQUIRE FUNDS TO RESOLVE OUR TAX ARREARAGE OR TO GET THE STATE TO AGREE TO A WORKABLE ARRANGEMENT HAVE NOT BEEN SUCCESSFUL. WE ARE SO SORRY THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED, AND FOR THE SUDDENNESS THAT IT DID HAPPEN. WE WANT TO OPEN AND UNDERSTAND HOW BADLY THIS HAS IMPACTED OUR FINE CUSTOMERS. ANY CONTACTS WITH STATE AND LOCAL OFFICIALS (KEARNEY, MALLORY, PILLICH, DOHONEY, PORTUNE, HARTMAN, DEWINE, STILES, KASICH) WOULD REALLY BE APPRECIATED. THANK YOU FOR ALL OF YOUR PAST SUPPORT AND UNDERSTANDING. —ALL OF US AT KELLER’S IGA, 1/15/11

I fished around in my things for something to write on, finding—ironically—my own tax letter. Just as I finished transcribing Vierling’s plea, a kind-faced man with glasses unlocked the door and started pushing shopping carts onto the sidewalk. It was Vierling himself, ferrying out cart after cart of perishables—hummus, bananas, bags of pre-washed spring mix, celery, carrots, fresh broccoli, cherry tomatoes, potatoes. It didn’t take long before people—the nosey Nellies like me, staff from China Kitchen next door, and some shoppers who hadn’t heard the place was closed—began pulling and grabbing at the food and stuffing it into the blue plastic bags he’d provided.

Standing there, I was half in shock and half marveling at how quickly the crowd’s mood changed: One minute, they were quiet, concerned mourners; the next, gluttons.

I needed something else: To get into that store and talk to Vierling there. Inside.

After a flurry of calls, Marilyn Hyland, cochair of Friends of Keller’s, an ad hoc group of civic-minded supporters, residents, and merchants, met me in early February at the store’s rear dock and ushered me into the dingy staff break room in the basement to meet with John Vierling. The three of us sat at a long, cigarette-burned table where I’m guessing my friend Joe once took his late-night breaks. On the paneled walls faded pictures hung askew. Between the paneling and the wan lighting, it felt like I’d been transported back to my aunt’s basement in the early ’70s.

Vierling is 60 years old—plump and studiously earnest. In the aftermath of the closure, he has been the face and voice of the store. He had already invested 35 years of his life in Keller’s, he told me. When he was a teen he stocked boxes of Jell-O and filled the coolers with frozen food. He’d run the place—some say into the ground—as the owner since 1993, when he took over after his uncle John C. Keller retired. John C. had run it with Vierling’s mother, Ruth Keller Vierling. Her son didn’t hesitate to trace not only the store’s ownership, but also ownership of the responsibility for the store’s financial woes. He acknowledged he and his co-owner, Charles Dugger, were deep in arrears with the state. He said that he and the Friends of Keller’s were trying to get Governor Kasich to convince the tax department to forgive $80,000 in penalties and put the store on a repayment plan for the $190,000 balance.

When we talked, the store had been closed nearly one month. “We’ve lost a lot of perishables,” he said.

I asked him if he’d thought about what he would do if he were unable get the state to accept that deal. “I don’t plan on retiring,” he said calmly. “I plan on re-opening the store. If this doesn’t work, I haven’t thought about that.”

His explanation for the situation is a familiar one: The onslaught of big-box stores, the saturation of hometown grocery behemoth Kroger, promotional incentives like gas cards, and the allure of newcomers like Trader Joe’s—all had taken a toll on Keller’s cash flow. As a small business owner, he was accustomed to prioritizing stacks of bills, making good with the creditor or vendor who’d gone the longest without payment. When it came down to a vendor-versus-tax man crap shoot, the vendor got the check. “Our sales were down after paying all our expenses,” he said. “We had the choice to buy more inventory or pay the taxes…and we decided to buy the inventory. We were buying time expecting sales would improve. And they didn’t.”

The rumor on the street in early February was that owners of Dorothy Lane Market, the Dayton-based boutique franchise, or possibly Trader Joe’s, were interested in taking the space. But those rumors were apparently based on the neighborhood’s wishful thinking. “No one has put any offers in,” Vierling said before I left. “And we haven’t accepted any.”

The day I heard the news of the store’s closing, I sent text messages and left voicemails for a gaggle of people—former Cincinnatians who’d lived nearby and depended on Keller’s. Their reactions ranged from shock and horror to sadness and cynicism.

One of my best friends, Dean Blase, lived in Clifton with her husband and two daughters for years; now she’s working on a doctorate at Harvard University. In a rambling, stream-of-consciousness e-mail, she said: “I miss IGA with all its funkiness and neighborhood stories. I also tried to pitch a Clark English teacher job to [musician and teacher] Jake Speed in the aisles, once found an obscure cookie above the defunct Icee freezer, [like one] I’d just ordered online from a specialty shop, and regularly [shipped] cases of cranberry concentrate to my stepmother.” Apparently, Blase mused, Keller’s was the only store that carried it.

My ex, Michelle V. Rowley, a women’s studies professor at the University of Maryland, lived first downtown and then in Northside, without a car, while teaching at the University of Cincinnati. She was struck by the role Keller’s played as a community living room.

“Neighborhood supermarkets like IGA provide a casual meeting point for the surrounding community,” she mourned, via e-mail. Work colleagues, teenagers, favorite cashiers, familiar faces, street people—“We don’t necessarily expect neighborhood supermarkets to have a wide array of goods and specialty items—but we expect our wide array of neighbors to be there. I think the thing that made me travel from downtown to IGA was precisely this interesting combination of communal everyday and unexpected stock.”

And then there was its location. Katie Laur, WNKU bluegrass DJ and musician (and now, a columnist for this magazine), lived downtown for years without a car and still doesn’t have one—though she now lives a little closer to Keller’s, in Clifton Heights. Bedeviled by back problems at 67, she could always find someone to bum a ride from, or if need be, call a cab to take her to Keller’s. But with the store closed—for the foreseeable future—her grocery trips must be more carefully orchestrated.

“If IGA closes [permanently] I will jump off a bridge,” she told me in her trademark Appalachian drawl. She’s still holding out hope for a rebirth. “We can all meet at the Brent Spence Bridge and I will jump off in a Superman costume!”

Laur has had a decidedly Mayberryesque relationship with Keller’s. “I’ve been shopping at Keller’s since 1966,” she explains. “I had an in-store charge account there. I’d forget my money and so they set up an in-store account.” Laur’s second album was called Cooking with Katie; Keller’s provided the butchers’ aprons for the album cover. “With all my heart I hope they can re-open,” she says.

It’s not enough  that ghetto bodegas like the ones that used to dot the corners in Over-the-Rhine close. We can reconcile their closings in the name of  “progress” to make way for swaths of private gentrification. But when large, full-service, name-brand stores close, stores that were once ensconced in and the cornerstones of neighborhoods with hordes of folks depending on convenience and familiarity, it sends a shockwave rippling through a community.

In the summer of 2001, while the rest of Cincinnati was reeling from the aftershocks of the riots and subsequent boycotts, residents of Pleasant Ridge were left scrambling when that neighborhood’s IGA closed. Just like Friends of Keller’s, a local group formed to keep big-box retailers out and to find ways to quickly re-purpose  the space and keep it from sliding into blight. The re-invention was called Ridge Market—sort of a Findlay Market Lite, offering stock from independent butchers, farmers, and florists. It was a valiant attempt, but it closed in 2005.

In late April 2010, Kroger closed its Bond Hill/Roselawn store, which elicited calls for citywide boycotts of other Kroger stores and visits from state Senator Eric Kearney, who declared that the closing would result in a “food desert.” According to news reports, Kroger officials said the store lost in excess of $1 million in 2009. They didn’t dispatch representatives to a public forum, but they did offer bus tokens to residents without transportation who once walked to that store.

For the last five years (at least), rumors have swirled in my own neighborhood, Walnut Hills, about the imminent closing of the Peebles Corner Kroger—a location that serves mostly poor, working-class, and elderly blacks. Instead, the store recently underwent a minor makeover eerily similar to the one the Over-the-Rhine store on Vine Street received a few years back: brighter lights, some paint, a slight re-arrangement of food, and a different set of managers at the top. Unlike the Kroger in OTR, we got a cooler stocked with pomegranate juice and soy milk rather than double-wide coolers full of 40-ouncers.

This short, sad, disparate history of closings and rumored evacuations illustrates not only how beholden communities are to their grocery stores, but how vulnerable we are. When a grocer leaves, it takes a piece of us—and our ideals about community—with it.

But back to my meeting with John Vierling at Keller’s that cold day in February. It’s freezing at the long table in the break room; the heat’s shut off. Vierling quietly and matter-of-factly recounts the store’s last day for me. Even though he knew the state was threatening to yank the vendor’s license, “I felt blind-sided,” he says.

“My partner called me and said he had two state Department of Taxation agents here to close the store down,” he continues. “I threw on my clothes and came down and spent an hour on the phone trying to find out what I could do and was finally told I had to tell the customers to finish their shopping and go home.

“We went around to everyone—there were about 20 customers—and to the workers that were here. I told them to give me their phone numbers and we’d keep them informed as to what was going on. They were just shocked. No one saw it coming. It was like watching people walk around after a tornado hits.”

On that note, it’s time to go. But I do have one last request. Will Vierling walk me through the store?

Leaving the break room we take some stairs, emerging in a cramped space behind the left-hand side of the deli counter.

We cruise past the meat cooler, the breakfast meat and pre-packaged lunchmeat cooler, and the dairy section, and hook a right down the beer aisle. Vierling explains that meat, dairy, and some beer will be thrown out as shelf dates expire. “It’s depressing when you walk through here,” he says in the dark, cold store. We pause before the expansive beer shelves. “You drink beer?” he asks.

I tell him that I don’t, really.

“Take a six-pack,” he says.

I am not a connoisseur and become immediately flustered by the thought of choosing and pouring the libations of a man’s shortfall.

“Pick something weird,” he says, “something you wouldn’t normally drink.” That’s every single thing for me. I put my hand on a four-pack of Russian stout. The store is freezing, partially lit, vacated. Coolers emit low hums. It’s eerie.

“Ugh. Stout,” Vierling says.

“It’s gonna be dark,” I say, thinking out loud. “OK, Mr. Vierling. I’m going for what I know.” I grab a six-pack of Woodchuck pear-flavored hard cider.

“Sometimes you’ve gotta go with what’s comfortable,” he says, leading me through a register line. I hand him the six-pack and he snaps open a paper bag, sliding the cider inside. Just as if the store were open.

Opening the front doors for me, he gives me a little affectionate pat on the shoulder.

“I’m gonna have me a beer when I get home,” he says as I cross the threshold, maybe for the last time. “…’Cause God knows I need one,” he adds, raising his voice for the first time.

I feel like crying. I walk out into the cold, bright February day.

After months of hand-wringing and speculation, the Ludlow Avenue Keller’s IGA will be…an IGA. Steve Goessling, a Northern Kentuckian who has acquired IGA stores in Reading (1998), Gallatin County (2002), and Georgetown (2007), has signed a purchase agreement and has plans to totally overhaul Keller’s.

“I was on the phone within 48 hours [of the closing] to find out what was going on at that location,” Goessling says. “I extended my offer on numerous occasions.” The deal he’s wrangled is for the building, property, goods, and the remaining inventory. What he’s not prepared to purchase are Keller’s debts. Goessling says Vierling and Dugger must clear those debts before the sale becomes final.

He adds that the community support intended to bolster morale and build momentum for Vierling’s and Dugger’s continued ownership actually made the negotiation difficult.

“At what point do you throw in the white towel and say, ‘We’re done?’” he says. “I don’t want all this goodwill and good intention to backfire on this store.”

As we talked in his office in his Reading store, the 54-year-old grocer—who was named IGA Retailer of the Year in 2002—made it clear that he isn’t viewing his new location through rose-colored glasses. Big, friendly, and direct, Goessling, who is a trained accountant, propped his right foot on his desk (he was nursing a bad sprain) as he described Keller’s troubles and what he intends to do to gain back the confidence and loyalty of Clifton shoppers.

“That store’s gonna have to do a tremendous amount of business not to find itself in the same shoes it was in with the previous owners,” he tells me. So, top of the list, he plans to minimize the IGA imprimatur as a way of re-branding it, maybe even renaming it Goessling’s Market, the Clifton Market, or simply, Gaslight. “It is not my intent to maintain the IGA store banner,” he says. “When the IGA emblem is more associated with closing stores and having debt, that isn’t conducive to comforting the customer. I want to be associated with success and not failure. I want nothing but a positive expectation for the customer from us.”

When the doors open again—he hopes by the start of the University of Cincinnati’s fall session, in September—Goessling says he will have invested $2.4 million into the deal; half in the acquisition of the store and the other half in renovations to equipment, flooring, and fixtures. He’s even trying to figure out a way to more efficiently use the rear loading docks and lower-level parking. Goessling and his son, Mark, will use social media to spread the word about specials, store-related events, and catering. And the store will march into the 21st century of grocery modernity with self-service checkouts and a stronger emphasis on international and organic foods.

I ask Goessling if he feels like a savior. “Because that’s exactly what you are,” I tell him.

“This is the toughest industry in the world to survive in,” he says, after a brief pause to ponder the question. “I feel like I’m doing a good thing. I feel partially like a community servant doing what I’ve chosen to do. Somewhere in my spiritual upbringing I always remember…those who have the most have to give the most…”

“…To whom much is given, much is expected,” I say, finishing his thought with a paraphrase of the bible verse “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.”

“Yes,” he says, “that’s right.”

A cliché food analogy seems apropos here. This may be like comparing apples and oranges, but it is ironic that one IGA grocer made himself a martyr trying to save his dying business while another becomes a redeemer resuscitating that same business. One hands over the business reluctantly but with some comfort knowing it is landing in the hands of a
capable, experienced man who is buoyed by and clear-headed about what lies ahead.

“I’m looking forward to the experiences I’m going to have in Clifton near the heart of UC and Cincinnati State and its culinary program,” Goessling says. He thinks people will enjoy the new store. Yes, he knows that some will always call it Keller’s IGA. Nevertheless, he says, “it will be a new store.”

Illustration by Paul Blow

Originally published in the June 2011 issue.

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