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So long, Watson's

It's the end of an era as the earthy Watson's Foodtown closes its doors. "I could write a book,'' says the night manager. Of course she could.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Thursday night, Watson's Foodtown was less than 24 hours from closing forever. But Judy Kent, the night manager, always ran a tight ship. She saw no reason to stop.

"Who's smokin' in the store?"

A small, wiry man flinched like he had heard a viper hiss. He almost stuck the cigarette in his pocket, except he couldn't quite find a pocket.

"Ah, it's me. I'm sorry."

"Ya need to get outside, buddy," Kent came back, using a softer tone.

Kent worked at Watson's a total of 13 1/2 years, including 11 consecutive before Friday, when the longtime neighborhood market at 845 Fourth St. N locked up for the last time.

A CVS drug store, part of a national chain, will open on the corner. City boards have approved it, and now the project is working its way through the permitting process. City officials expect the old store to be demolished in 30 to 45 days.

It will be the end of a legend. Watson's generated its own urban folklore.

Snubbed, even feared by milder folks preferring less gritty shopping venues, the store earned a reputation for serving a tough crowd.

Perhaps the classic hurled epithet came during a city board meeting last year.

CVS needed rezoning. People came to support it. Many made it clear they would be happy if the drug store replaced Watson's.

And someone referred to it as "a honeypot of degradation."

"A lot of what was said, I didn't like," Kent said.

Owner Chol Yu Lee said Kent did a good job keeping things calm in a store that over the years absorbed its share of loud, agitated or inebriated customers.

Lee, whose family came from Taegu, South Korea, previously owned stores in California, one in the Watts section of Los Angeles. He said he was robbed twice here.

The tough customers weren't the whole story, of course.

Though anecdotes rarely reflected it, sober and industrious citizens patronized the store, too.

In its earliest days, Watson's had a thriving delivery service bringing groceries to customers in the Old Northeast and Snell Isle.

"This is an eclectic group," said Charles David Hixon, 42, who lives east of Watson's and shopped there for two years. "You have a big mix of money and no-money." Hixon said he is about to re-enter a career in finance.

Friday, a buy-one, get-one-free sale helped clear the shelves.

Russel Merotta, a Boston native who spends his winters in St. Petersburg, stopped in for some beer. Wearing black squared glasses and a white polo shirt, he stood in front of the liquor case deciding between Schlitz and Busch.

"This is a blighted area," says Merotta. "It was a blighted area before the (Lees) came here. Whores, pimps, sex offenders. This is an area where they congregate. The police know they can find them here."

Merotta, who didn't know Watson's was closing, said he wasn't upset. He thinks the new CVS might clean the place up.

"There's too many undesirables here. Drug dealers, hustlers, cab drivers, this is like their headquarters. The owners don't object to them being here," Merotta says before picking a can of Schlitz. He paid for it and drove off in a white Oldsmobile.

Police statistics reflect 28 responses to calls from Watson's between Jan. 1 and March 3 this year. About the same number were reported for the same time period last year. Most calls were for relatively minor offenses.

Police spokesman George Kajtsa said officers frequently are called to Watson's. But he noted the statistics can be misleading.

For example, there are six pay phones outside the store. They are often used by phoneless apartment dwellers to report crimes that didn't happen on the store property, he said.

Stephanie Jackson, 41, isn't looking forward to CVS. "It's going to mess up everything," said Jackson, a female impersonator who lives in the neighborhood and has shopped at Watson's for a dozen years.

"We're real close. I'm a little bit sad," said Jackson, who would rather see a full supermarket built on the site.

During its 40-year history on Fourth Street N, Watson's mirrored the dynamics of the neighborhood around it.

It first opened in 1960 on Fourth Street N at Seventh Avenue, said Ray Watson, who ran a chain of seven Watson's in St. Petersburg. His father M.O. Watson, who was from Nashville, Tenn., founded the chain, which eventually became known for the orange tiger's head on store signs.

"Everybody in the world has asked me about that," Ray Watson said. "There's absolutely no reason in the world I picked a Tiger. I'm actually a big (Florida) Gator fan."

In 1965, the store moved to the location it occupied until Friday. The family business needed a bigger building.

"We built it from the ground up," Ray Watson said.

One of the interesting elements in the store's history is how its neighborhood has changed over the years, Watson said.

It began as an area of single-family houses and rooming houses for senior citizens. In the late 1960s, families began moving out and senior residents began heading for the beaches or buying condominiums. For a while in the early '70s, the area enjoyed a market among Canadian visitors.

Then that market dried up, and transient, lower-income people began filling the neighborhood.

"That was a real common trend in St. Petersburg," said Bob Jeffrey, the city's urban design manager. He noted that Dade County's South Beach experienced a similar transition.

Translated to street terms, the dynamic meant "the neighborhood got rough for a while," Ray Watson said. "But it's cleaning up now."

Watson, the Lees and Kent all credit the community policing program for helping do that.

Last summer, CVS and the Watson's property generated a sharp neighborhood debate. On one side were those who saw CVS as an improvement to the area. On the other were people who viewed the drug store as a commercial intrusion on a historic neighborhood.

A series of compromises and concessions made most of the CVS opponents happy. A major element was a CVS design and site plan that will blend well with the neighborhood.

It is "really conducive to having what you call a neighborhood type of business versus a highway type of business," said Felix Fudge, who is working to redevelop sections of Fourth Street N.

"It's been a long road and a lot of effort has been made by a lot of people," said Mark Gravley, who represents MetroGroup, the CVS developer.

Losing Watson's means its steady customers need a new place to shop.

Some will change to other neighborhood stores within blocks of Watson's. Others will travel about two miles north to Albertson's or Publix. Others will trek about the same distance southwest to a Winn-Dixie near Tropicana Field.

"I hate to see it go out of the neighborhood," said Joe Huff, 55, who rides his bicycle from a few blocks away.

The Exxon station across Ninth Avenue N, which has a small grocery and a Dairy Queen, has already seen its business pick up, said manager Barbara Russell.

"I think CVS is going to be a good thing for the neighborhood," she said.

Meanwhile, Kent, Michele Marville and John Shin, all Watson's employees, are looking for jobs. Lee said he and his wife Chong Wah Lee might consider staying in the grocery business if he can find a spot. His brother Kyung Woo Lee owns Shep's at 2001 Fourth St. N.

On Friday, even the beer signs were going.

A crew loaded several into a Budweiser van from Great Bay Distributors.

"There's always a use for them," said area supervisor Al Johnson.

- Staff writer John Balz contributed to this story.

Watson's timeline

1960 -- M.O. Watson opens the first Foodtown on Fourth Street N and Seventh Avenue.

1965 -- Foodtown moves to 845 Fourth St. N.

1989 -- Ray Watson, M.O. Watson's son, sells the store to Chol Yu Lee.

1998 -- Eckerd shows an interest in the Watson's property.

1999 -- Eckerd's interest wanes; design, street setback and neighborhood compatibility were among the issues raised.

2000 -- CVS interest in the Watson's site surfaces publicly.

May 2000 -- A group of North Shore residents mounts opposition to CVS.

June 2000 -- A North Shore design committee votes down the CVS proposal.

June 2000 -- City Council approves zoning to pave the way for CVS.

August 2000 -- North Shore votes approval of the CVS project after design concessions are made.

March 8, 2001 -- Watson's closes its doors.

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