Where are the grocery stores of yesteryear?
When I recently asked some present and former Greensboro residents about beloved neighborhood grocers of their youth, they responded with a litany of the departed, as wistful as poet François Villon remembering his dead ladies.
Bessemer Curb Market, with its legendary homemade pimento cheese. Big Bear, where the deli counter sold what Triad expat Ted House swears was “the best damn barbecue sandwich I ever had, which I still recall and crave 40 years later.” Jones Grocery, from which boys on bicycles delivered fresh meat and vegetables to homes on Spring Garden and Chapman. Hams hanging in the window at Livengoods. The open can of oysters set out on ice for free samples at Bestway on Spring Garden and Holden, where Stephanie Browning recalled walking around the store with one in her mouth after her mother spooned it there, unable to spit the mollusk out until they left.
If you look up the post I made on the “Greensboro, NC Memories: 1950s – 1980s” Facebook page, you’ll see 300+ comments flow like Bladerunner’s tears in rain.
Quite a few people mentioned one that isn’t gone, the Bestway on Walker Avenue. It’s the longest continuously operated grocery store in Greensboro, and the only neighborhood one I remember from my childhood.
I grew up in Fayetteville and don’t recall ever walking to grocery stores there. However, one October weekend in the 1960s, my mother and grandfather brought me to visit Greensboro relatives, while my father rehearsed at the Fort Bragg Playhouse, no doubt enjoying having the house to himself when he got home.
My mother’s uncle, Olan Barnes, had the flu, and my great-aunt Virginia was busy taking care of both him and the poultry on their farm at the corner of Friendly and Holden. So, we ended up staying with my great-uncle Floyd Reynolds and his wife, my mother’s aunt Louise, in their home on North Elam Avenue.
Some neighborhood porches were already sporting jack-o’-lanterns, but it was warm enough to walk to the Bestway on Walker to get ice cream after dinner; cool enough that it wouldn’t melt on the 15-minute walk back. Mom liked to walk, taking long-legged strides in her tartan skirt, but rarely took me with her when doing it in rowdy Fayetteville. (I imagine this was so I wouldn’t see her one-finger response to catcalls from soldiers, the way I had once when I secretly followed her. That’s one reason why I remember our Greensboro walk so well, even though she didn’t flip anyone off.)
Bestway had a Halloween display in the window, with a carved pumpkin and some masks. The masks weren’t for sale, but I wanted one. The manager gave us the Frankenstein and the Vampire Woman, either because he’d known my mother when she was at Guilford College, because she was very beautiful, or both, and wouldn’t take the dollar she offered in payment. We wore our masks on the walk back, alternating making scary gestures at passing cars and raising them to lick the Creamsicle we shared.
I now wish I’d checked to see if that Bestway still has Creamsicles I went there with photographer Ciara Kelley to take photos for this article. (They do have Locopops, which I love, albeit not as much as kid-me loved Creamsicles.)
For the following information, I thank my friend David Gwynn, who is the digital projects coordinator and associate professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Jackson Library but also maintains the marvelously obsessive and detailed website. (My 2017 article “A Brothel on Elm Street” describes the notorious downtown business once run by David’s great-grandfather.)
David’s specialty is historical national supermarket chains, not local ones like Bestway, but he still knew a lot about it. He told me that the grocery store at 2113 Walker Ave. was built in 1948 as an A&P, one of 42 that company opened (and closed) in Greensboro between 1909 and 1987. A detailed history of those locations, complete with photos, can be found on his website.
The Walker Avenue A&P closed in 1957, re-opening the next year as Smith’s Bi-Rite. “The Bi-Rite co-op was originally established to help independent grocers compete with big chains,” David said. “All the stores that formed the co-op in 1956 were independents, and R.M. Butler ended up as president of the co-op.”
David said that Butler eventually owned the Walker Avenue Bi-Rite and eight others in the co-op. In 1972, Butler rebranded these stores as Bestway. “They were a pretty big player in Greensboro in the 1970s and early 1980s, but they apparently expanded too quickly. The beginning of the end was their purchase of a former Kroger on Battleground Avenue (it’s now EarthFare) in 1984. By 1986, the chain was bankrupt, and Butler ended up selling or liquidating all the stores except the one on Walker Avenue, which oddly enough, had the lowest sales volume but was the most profitable one of the bunch.”
David also told me that the convenience store on Tate Street near UNCG was once part of the Bi-Rite co-op, albeit not one of Butler’s stores that became the Bestway chain. “It remained a Bi-Rite until about 1983 and was then an independent called Sav-Way until it was renamed, College Mart.” He said that the closest remaining Bi-Rite is in Stokesdale, where it’s operated continuously since 1965, but that it’s “an independent and now part of the Galaxy co-op.”
The story was continued from there for me by Nancy Kimbrough. She and her husband, Roger, own the Walker Avenue Bestway, and two months ago opened Bestway Marketplace in UNCG’s Spartan Village on the corner of Gate City Boulevard and Glenwood Avenue.
In an email, she wrote that she “decided to part ways with corporate America” in 2008, when she and Roger began looking for a small retail business. “We were open to anything within a 50-mile radius, but as it turned out, the first business Roger found was five minutes away in the great neighborhood of Lindley Park. The store had been severely neglected for five years plus, so Roger and I saw tremendous and immediate potential.” They purchased that location and its Bestway name in November of 2008.
She wrote that, when owned by the Butler family in the 1970s, Bestway consisted of “17 locations accounting for one-third of the grocery business in Guilford County.” This gradually dwindled to the Walker Avenue store, “which was sold in 2003 or 2004 and continued its decline” until she and her husband renovated and revived it five years later.
There it prospered, attracting increased business both for its fresh local produce and its massive selection of craft beers. The latter isn’t available at the Glenwood store, due to UNCG being Bestway Marketplace’s landlord, but the new location brings both history and innovation to the table.
“Our vision for Bestway Marketplace is to create a neighborhood grocery store to serve the Glenwood community while also appealing to the student customer. The store is a full-line grocery store with fresh produce and fresh-cut meats.” But, she wrote, the Marketplace differs from the traditional grocery store “by including fresh-roasted coffee (we have our own roaster in store), a deli where we can prepare soups, paninis, and pizza to order (we have an Italian pizza oven), and a juice bar and fresh baked breads and pastries. We want to create an environment where the community can shop, eat and meet in one location.”
When I visited it last Thursday, I found both students and Glenwood residents shopping there, as well as meat so fresh and appealing that I asked that department’s very friendly manager Chris Noell to cut me both a 1.5 lb. Porterhouse ribeye and a 2.6 lb. Boston butt roast.
While he was doing that, a familiar voice distracted me from my carnivorous reverie. It belonged to local artist Gene Kronberg, whom I’ve known since the 1980s, and who is a long-time Glenwood resident.
Kronberg said he was very happy Bestway Marketplace opened in his neighborhood. “This is a fine place, and its prices are nice. This meat market is equivalent to a good German butcher shop, which I frequented up in South Jersey.” He said it wasn’t necessarily the freshness of the meat that attracted him, although he was glad it first went on-sale that way. “They will cut their prices in half shortly before sell-by date is very good for students and for me.”
I also talked to a customer considerably younger than Kronberg, UNCG senior social work major Tyler Hicks, who was pushing a grocery cart that included fresh produce, Kerry butter, and bacon. “It’s very convenient,” she told me, “both the location and because they take Flex [UNCG’s declining-balance meal card]. The prices are pretty good. I’ve been waiting on this for a year, and was so glad when they finally opened it.”
General manager Daniel Krout told me that it’d been quite a change from working at Walker Avenue. “Here at Spartan Village, we have less grocery space, and we have the deli, the pizza oven, the coffee shop and juice shop, all things we had no experience with there. So, it’s strange but very exciting.” He told me he thinks the local community is still not fully aware that his store is here, but that the students love it. “One young woman was almost crying the first day she was here. She had a fresh apple and said ‘I haven’t had fresh fruit in three weeks.’ That’s because they have to take a bus to go to someplace like Harris Teeter, and that can be very difficult. So, she was very excited to have fresh fruit available right here.” He said that he hopes that the Glenwood community would embrace the fact that there’s a grocery store in the neighborhood. “We want to welcome them to the Bestway here. It’s certainly not just for the students.”
Deli manager Bob Dator expressed considerable pride in his surroundings. “We have a whole butcher shop, with meat and seafood, everything fresh. Look at that salmon! Isn’t it beautiful? Oysters come in fresh. There’s nothing in here that we sell that isn’t fresh or that Roger and Nancy haven’t tried for quality.”
He said that much of what his store sells is either locally-sourced or made onsite. “We roast our own coffee beans. Our bread is baked in our own bakery and delivered here. Pizza dough is made there and delivered here. We’re going to be adding a line of in-house deli salads and pre-made sandwiches. They’ll be able to get cold sandwiches, hot paninis, and breakfast sandwiches.”
As Noell weighed, wrapped and labeled my steak and roast, he told me of his history in the industry. “I’ve been cutting meat for altogether about 11 years, first at Food Lion and Winn-Dixie. Got out of the grocery industry for a bit, but went back into it in 2017 at Bi-Rite in Stokesdale. I came to Bestway in August of 2018 because I wanted to advance a little bit. Roger and Nancy Kimbrough gave me my first management position, which I appreciate.”
Although the only meat I bought this time was the beef, my eye kept wandering to the North Carolina jumbo shrimp in the seafood counter. He told me he got it fresh from Larry Williams at New River Fish Company. “He supplies most of our fish. Some come in frozen, but a lot comes in fresh.”
The next day, I met Ciara at the Bestway on Walker, which she was delighted to find sold mead. While Ciara took photos outside and inside that historical store, I talked to customer Brenda Sexton. “I love Bestway,” she told me. “I’ve been coming here for years. It’s so convenient. I love the hours, and I love how it’s really simple, how you don’t have to walk all over a huge store. And honestly, I love coming in here and finding clearance things, too. I live in Lindley Park, and I love walking from my house.”
Just as my mother had loved walking from her aunt’s house when I was a kid, it’s good to know that some people can still do that.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.
Bestway at 2113 Walker Ave. is open 7 a.m. until Midnight, Monday through Saturday. Bestway Marketplace at Spartan Village is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.