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Landmark market closes on peninsula

The Balboa Village Market, a fixture on Balboa Peninsula since 1938, shuttered over the weekend.

November 07, 2006|By Alicia Robinson

BALBOA PENINSULA — The St John family will no longer bring its personal touch to the grocery business after the closing of the Balboa Village Market over the weekend.

However, the market, a former Safeway that's been a fixture on the peninsula since 1938, may not be closing for good. Bob St John, who owns the store with his son Scott, said Monday he was talking to a potential buyer.

But St John has decided to retire after nearly five years of trying to turn the store's fortunes around and achieving only limited success. He closed the market Saturday at the end of the day, and he didn't reopen Sunday or Monday.

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With a changing population on the peninsula, credit card problems from a wine sale scam, and the sale of the market property earlier this year, a lot of little things added up to the decision to close.

"Four and a half years ago when we bought it, we wanted to make this the heartbeat [of the peninsula] like it used to be," St John said. "It just didn't work out because the customer base has changed."

Leo Gugasian, who bought the property in March and now owns the entire block, said he's not sure what the market's long-term future is, despite rumors that it will make way for a parking lot. He'd be willing to work with a new owner, he said, because the market is an important part of the peninsula.

The closing was a surprise to people in the community. St John said he didn't tell anyone he'd be closing because it was too painful for him.

"Since 1949, my mom and dad had a charge [account] there," said Gay Wassall-Kelly, a longtime peninsula resident who publishes the Balboa Beacon. "It was a meeting place, a gathering place for everyone."

When St John bought the market, he said, he ran it the old-fashioned way. Kids could charge a soda to their dad's account, and he offered free grocery delivery in a yellow cart painted with a mustached man styled in his likeness.

With his deli and top-quality meats, St John fed the peninsula. Junior lifeguards would come in the summer for a $5 lunch special.

The market's motto was, "We're more than your store — we're your neighbor."

But the neighbors have changed. Property values soared, and new younger families who shop at the bigger supermarkets moved in.

St John said he upgraded inside the store, but redoing the outside to meet city codes required a bigger investment than he was ready to make.

A previous five-year option went away when the property was sold, so St John only has about three and a half years left on his lease. There was talk of declaring bankruptcy, he said, but although that's an option, he's hoping to sell the market to a new operator.

St John has begun selling off merchandise — El Ranchito bought some of his beer supply — and the meat counter that runs almost the length of the store is now empty.

"It was the neighborhood market, and I think it'll be truly missed in that aspect," said Harvey Forbes, who was the store's butcher and meat department manager for about 12 years.

But the closing didn't catch him completely off-guard, especially after several rides left the Balboa Fun Zone in September.

While bigger supermarkets have taken some of the market's business away, Forbes said, "there's no real personalization. There's no 'Hi. How are you today?'"

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