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One last bargain, then goodbye

Watson's Foodtown closes to make way for a CVS drugstore. Regulars say they'll miss the neighborhood fixture.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- At 8:05 p.m. on a drizzly Friday, manager John Shin locked the front door of Watson's Foodtown. Three minutes later the big orange and blue sign in front blinked out for the last time.

photo
[Times photo: Name Here]
Gene Maynard looks for merchandise during the 2-for-1 sale at Watson's Foodtown on Friday.
A fixture since the mid 1960s at 845 Fourth St. N, Watson's will make way for a CVS drugstore, one in a huge national chain.

It's a happy development for residents and nearby business owners, who for years perceived the store and its gritty corner as the turf of ruffians, tipplers, panhandlers and streetwalkers.

Owner Chol Yu Lee, who bought the store in 1989, said he was robbed twice there. Life lately has calmed down, he said, thanks to community police officers. Still, Lee is glad his tenure is finished.

"Look at the hair," said Lee, 53, a native of Korea. "Used to be brown. Now it's 100 percent white."

Watson's -- and the CVS project -- became the focus of a neighborhood debate last year when the drugstore chain announced its plans.

Some Old Northeast residents feared the drugstore would mean commercial intrusion into their historically sensitive neighborhood. Others saw a chance to get rid of Watson's.

Despite its reputation -- not all of it substantiated by police records -- the store won the affection of its customers.

They included single moms hauling their children, unemployed men with faces scabbed and scarred, quick-stopping coffee-and-cigarette folks, and a steady stream of people looking for such basics as cereal, cold cuts, canned food and beer.

Scratch-off lottery tickets sold by the bushel.

Friday morning, staples such as milk and bread had been gone for days. There were a few six-packs of beer and a carton or two of cigarettes left. The rest of the groceries were on sale -- buy one, get one free -- but it was slim pickings on the shelves.

As of 11 a.m. Friday, only 12 tomatoes and six boxes of cereal remained.

Anything left in the store will get bulldozed with the building, Lee said.

Susan Boisvenue, a middle-aged woman with long brown hair and leather sandals, was one of the shoppers trying to take advantage of the bargains. She stocked up on so many items -- lasagna, soup, candy -- she had to make three trips to the store just to carry everything home.

"I'm going to miss this place," she said, taking two chicken-and-cheese frozen dinners from the freezer case. "It's convenient, and it's not overpriced like a lot of these little shops around here."

She had no idea that CVS is moving in, but she probably won't shop this corner anymore.

"I'll have to get on the bus and go to Albertsons," she said.

Outside, Harry Berkowitz wore a cast on his left arm, injured a month ago in a knife fight blocks away. He said he and his wife have shopped regularly at Watson's for four years. One time a store employee "called the cops because I was hangin' out panhandling," Berkowitz said.

Police records show 28 calls from Watson's from Jan. 1 to March 3 this year. Most regarded trouble with rowdy people. But they included complaints about a battery, a forgery and a man with a gun.

Calls from the store didn't mean the trouble always originated there. People living in nearby apartments often use the six pay phones outside the store to report incidents, police say.

The first Watson's was on Fourth Street N and Seventh Avenue. It opened about 1960, said Ray Watson, who took over from his father, M.O. Watson. Ray Watson remembers building the store at 845 Fourth Street in about 1965.

In those days, Watson's enjoyed a booming business to customers in the Old Northeast and Snell Isle. Four full-time employes did nothing but fill delivery orders, Ray Watson said.

The neighborhood immediately surrounding the store gradually changed, starting in the 1970s. Lower-income, transient residents began moving in. "It got rough for awhile," Ray Watson said.

Felix Fudge is an Old Northeast resident who is rehabilitating areas along Fourth Street N. He is glad to see CVS come. It has created a new kind of thinking along Fourth Street N, "more like this is a place where you want to do business," he said.

Others are going to miss the store, its eclectic blend of customers and the urban lore they generated.

"I could write a book," said Judy Kent, the night manager who has worked at Watson's for more than 13 years.

"It's like losing a good friend."

City permits for the CVS project are pending, officials say. But they expect demolition of the old building to start in 30 to 45 days.

The last customer Friday night was Nelson R. Tarniella. He bought a pack of smokes.

- Staff writer John Balz contributed to this report.

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