As Pathmark shuts, Camden loses its last supermarket

Dave McGahee, 58, said he had been coming to this Pathmark store since he was a child.
Dave McGahee, 58, said he had been coming to this Pathmark store since he was a child. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photogrpher)
Posted: September 08, 2013

As patrons approached the glass doors of the Pathmark supermarket in Camden on Friday, a security guard turned them away.

"We're closed," said Dan Graves, 59, who has been working security for 18 years for the company that owns Pathmark and Super Fresh stores. "There's nothing left inside."

But that didn't stop the steady stream of cars, trucks, and those arriving by bus or foot in the supermarket's parking lot throughout Friday in what took on the air of a wake.

Many said they were misled by the large "Store Closing" banner out front, thinking they had one more day. Some longtime employees gathered in clusters outside and embraced as if they had just lost a loved one.

Reality eventually began to sink in: The neighborhood icon and social gathering place was shuttered for good.

"I have a lot of memories here," said Camden native Antonio Zapata as he slowly walked back to his truck after being waved off by Graves.

Zapata, 21, began going to the Pathmark at 2881 Mount Ephraim Ave. with his parents when he was 5.

"I remember coming here when I was just a boy," he said as he turned to give the store one more look.

Zapata had come Friday to use the Bank of America ATM inside to get cash, as he had done countless times. "Now I have to go somewhere else," he said, "probably another B of A [machine] on Route 70. Kind of far."

The supermarket's closing cut much deeper for Ursula Hardy, 53, of Camden. She started working there at 22. Her first day was Sept. 18, 1983. Her last day was Thursday as a part-time clerk making $20 an hour with full health benefits.

"I've never been unemployed," said the mother of five.

But beyond the steady paycheck, "I'm going to miss the customers, especially the older people," Hardy said. "Many of them needed help reading their debit cards, or counting their money, because their vision wasn't very good, or they'd need help walking back to their cars. . . . I can't tell you how many funerals I've been to."

While Hardy spoke openly about the store's closing, she said employees were advised by the owners not to discuss it on social media.

"We were family here," Hardy said. "Of course we're sad. A lot of us started working here when we were kids."

It was announced two months ago that three Pathmark stores - in Camden, Cherry Hill, and Edgewater Park - would close. Parent company Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P) cited underperformance as the reason. A&P also owns Super Fresh.

The closures are just the latest in what has become a steady downsizing by several local supermarket chains.

A Super Fresh in Haddon Township that Kimberly Foster frequented for 20 years closed this year, which is why she had made the Camden Pathmark her main place to shop. She lives in Collingswood and works as a property manager in Camden.

"I would get everything here - dog food, fruit, and meat. It's very disheartening that these stores are closing everywhere," said Foster, 50, as she was turned away Friday from the Pathmark.

A total of 355 employees worked at the three closing Pathmarks, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The Camden store employed just over 100.

Security guard Graves said the store was virtually emptied out by Thursday, thanks to a "90 percent off" sale two days earlier when "everything started disappearing off the shelves."

All that remained was picked clean by Thursday's 9 p.m. closing time, leaving only a carcass Friday. He said Bank of America had removed its ATM, surveillance camera, and equipment.

Only employees were allowed inside Friday.

"We had a little going-away party for everybody," said Graves, who is being transferred to other Pathmarks and Super Freshes in Philadelphia. "We'll have to see what happens.

"Sometimes one door closes and another one opens," he said. "That's what we told the employees today."

No lease has yet been signed for the site in the Fairview section. Officials have been showing it to other potential grocery stores now that the city's only full-service supermarket has departed.

Residents will have to wait two years to get another - a ShopRite expected to open in East Camden in 2015. That will provide some relief in a city many parts of which are considered "food deserts" under federal standards.

For William "Wally" Wallace, the store's closing means losing his favorite sanctuary. He has sat in front on a folding chair every day except Sunday for 15 years. Like clockwork, he'd arrive at noon and leave by 6:30 p.m., before it got dark.

On Friday, he had a bag of popcorn that he fed to the birds and drank from a soda cup. This was theater for the 77-year-old retiree.

"I'd come out here and sit and see people I hadn't seen in years," he said. "They'd remember me cutting their hair when they were young boys. It would make me feel good."

Wallace owned a barbershop for 40 years at Seventh and Clinton Streets in Camden. He now lives at the Lutheran Senior Citizens Residence in Pennsauken.

"The residence has a patio in the back," he said. "I can maybe sit there during the summer.

"But I hope when another store moves in, they'll let me sit out here again."


Contact Suzette Parmley at 856-779-3928, sparmley@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @SuzParmley.

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