Pushing her shopping cart through the Stop and Shop Market in Studio City on Tuesday, Jackie White paused at the butcher department, reached across the counter and clutched Max Monkarsh's hand.
"I'm sorry," she said of the impending closure of the 48-year-old neighborhood grocery store, where she has shopped for 15 years.
Asked if she was sad to see the store go, White said, "Are you kidding? It's like a funeral."
Monkarsh, who has owned the building for 20 years, said he "can almost cry" when he thinks about having to lock the market's doors for the last time on Feb. 23.
"I love this place," the 65-year-old Monkarsh said. "It's been good to me. But like everything else, we must go sometime."
Variety of Customers
The market, a run-down beige building with brown trim, is on Ventura Place, a small street that runs parallel to Ventura Boulevard, between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Radford Avenue. Among its customers are residents of the exclusive Studio City hillside neighborhoods and of the more modest homes nearer the store.
Monkarsh, who operates the butcher shop inside the market, suffers from an eye disease that is progressively robbing him of his sight. His doctor, he said, has given him strict orders to quit working.
At the same time, Won Lee, who has leased the remainder of the store from Monkarsh for the past 11 years, cannot afford to pay the kind of rates Monkarsh has been offered by others who would like to convert the 8,000-square-foot building to another use. Although Monkarsh refused to be specific, fearing that he might jeopardize negotiations, he said he hopes to lease the facility to a "fine restaurant."
"Mr. Lee's lease is up this month, and he can't support what someone else would pay for this building," Monkarsh said. "I'm a businessman."
The market's closure is part of a growing trend that has seen neighborhood groceries give way to supermarket chains that charge less money but, Monkarsh asserts, offer inferior service and merchandise.
"It's very difficult for a neighborhood market to stay alive, especially in a good area," he said. "Rents are just too high."
Lee said some customers have offered to circulate petitions to save the market. "Somehow, they feel betrayed," he said.
For White, the closure brings an era to an end. "It's just like being in a small town," the Laurel Canyon resident said. "You run into everyone you know in that store. They offer charge accounts, which is marvelous, and their meats and produce are first-rate.
"Where else will the box boys carry your bags to the car, and where else will you get a bottle of champagne for Christmas?" The store gave its longtime customers gifts for Christmas, Lee said.
Monkarsh said he vacillated for a year before deciding to close the Stop and Shop. His dream, he said, was to take control of the entire store when Lee's lease expired, remodel the building and operate a gourmet market and catering service. But his health spoiled those plans.
"You know, there are some families coming in here--I watched the children grow while their mothers shopped here and now the children are my customers," he said. "Every child who came in here, I didn't give them candy. I'd put them up on the meat counter and give them a piece of salami or a rib."
In the past few years, Monkarsh said, he has cut back his hours. But he will be working full time until the store's closure.
"I have to say goodby to all my customers," he said.
Lee, who learned only last month that the market would be shut, said he will offer 20% to 50% discounts on merchandise to clear the store for closure. He said that he does not know what he and his 15 employees will do and that he doubts that he will open a market elsewhere.
"The grocery store's days are over, unless you own the property," Lee said. "Every time your lease expires, there will be someone willing to pay two or three times what you pay."
Monkarsh and his wife, Lynne, plan to relax and travel after the store closes.