Patrons say Camden Pathmark's closure will leave a big void

The Pathmark on Mount Ephraim Avenue at Camden's southern end will close in September, owner A&P announced.
The Pathmark on Mount Ephraim Avenue at Camden's southern end will close in September, owner A&P announced. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2013

Camden's only chain supermarket, in the southern tip of the city, is not just a place to get food and paper towels.

It is a place where many of this impoverished city's 77,000 residents say they look forward to going to catch up with friends and neighbors. A safe haven for adults.

But the mood outside the Pathmark on Wednesday was just like the gray clouds looming over the store's parking lot. Shoppers were commiserating with each other and employees over the news that the long-standing store will shut its doors for good in September.

Pathmark's parent company, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., told employees Tuesday that it would close three Pathmark supermarkets, in Cherry Hill, Camden, and Edgewater Park, in 60 days. The stores were losing money, union officials were told.

Unless a deal is struck in the next couple of months with another chain to fill the Pathmark space, Camden residents will be dependent on the smaller grocery stores in the city, most of which are concentrated in East Camden, or will have to find transportation to suburban supermarkets.

"Me and my husband started shopping at the Shop Rite in Cherry Hill to get used to it," said Helen Young as she walked out with two small bags. Young said store employees started talking about the Camden store's fate about a year ago.

Young who lives on the border of Camden, Woodlynne, and Collingswood, said she enjoys the familial feeling of the store.

"I've been in the store for an hour and only got a couple things," Young said. She ran into several friends inside and couldn't help but chat with each.

Former school board member Sean Brown, who lives just a few blocks from the Pathmark, said the supermarket is where he would most often hear people discussing school issues.

"It's like my corner store," Brown said.

So much like a corner store that there are always familiar faces outside. Whether it's the for-hire drivers who take shoppers home or the guys who sell water and soda out of a cooler, everyone knows each other.

"Everybody says the same thing: 'Where are people going to shop locally?' " Brown said.

The lack of chain supermarkets has landed much of Camden on the list of the country's worst food deserts. The term is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income urban area where at least a third of the residents live more than a mile from a supermarket that has at least $2 million in annual sales.

The Pathmark has been an oasis for the last 30 years. Some people don't even have to go into the store to enjoy the ambience.

William Wallace, a 77-year-old retired barber, drives in his Ford Crown Victoria to the Pathmark parking lot each morning except Sundays, pulls out his beach chair, and sits by the entrance smoking a stogie and watching people come in and out. Most stop to greet him.

"How you doing, young man," one customer said as he walks out, waving at Wallace, who smiled in delight.

Wallace, who for decades ran Wally's barbershop in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood, said he had been socializing outside the Pathmark for about 15 years.

"I see little kids smiling and waving. I see people I haven't seen in 25 years," Wallace said.

He usually packs up his chair and snacks around 5 p.m. It's a full day of work socializing, he said with a laugh.

"I don't know where I'm going to go now," Wallace lamented.

In March, the Goldenberg Group of Blue Bell announced plans to build a 75,000-square-foot ShopRite store that would anchor a planned 150,000-square-foot retail shopping center at the Admiral Wilson Boulevard and 17th Street. But plans are still in infancy and a supermarket wouldn't open until 2015 at the earliest.

Much of the 20-acre land where developers want to build the center is owned by the Delaware River Port Authority and a small portion by the city. City land transfers cannot occur until a redevelopment plan is adopted by City Council, said the Camden Redevelopment Authority executive director, Saundra Ross-Johnson.

The Philadelphia-based Fresh Grocer signed a letter of intent in September to anchor the long-planned Haddon Avenue Transit Village, which is to have 40,000 square feet of office space, about 400 housing units, a 50,000-square-foot supermarket, and a 700-space garage. But the grocery store has yet to sign a lease for the planned site at the White Horse Pike intersection near Collingswood.

City officials have been showing the site to other potential grocery stores, including Whole Foods.

People were already feeling nostalgic Wednesday about Pathmark's closure.

"I've been shopping here since I came back from Vietnam," said William Tyler as he pushed his small personal cart home. Like many Fairview residents, he walks about a mile to get his groceries. A nice walk to keep him healthy, he said: "I'm in here three or four times a week."

Tyler, 70, has a car to drive to suburban stores but said he would miss the convenience of his neighborhood store.

"I'm going to miss Pathmark," he said, looking back at the store. "I watched this store expand. It was only 10 aisles at first, now it's about 20."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.inquirer.com/camden_flow

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