Residents rally for grocer, tradition

Tina McDonald (right) greeted regular customers at Chatham Village Market. Supporters relish its personal service. Tina McDonald (right) greeted regular customers at Chatham Village Market. Supporters relish its personal service. (Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / July 29, 2009

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CHATHAM - To some in this quaint Cape Cod tourist mecca, it felt like an overnight invasion.

First, a new Dunkin’ Donuts popped up in a historic house on Route 28 earlier this month, its pink-and-orange sign planted on the lawn out front. Then news broke of a more troubling development: The town’s only grocery store, the much-beloved Chatham Village Market, would not be allowed to renew its lease. Instead, it would be forced to vacate the building next year to make way for a CVS pharmacy.

The threat to the market, in a well-worn brick building where a grocery store has operated for 50 years, was the last straw. An angry backlash to the plan erupted, led by residents who pride themselves on the wealth of small, independent businesses in their town at Cape Cod’s elbow.

As the forces of homogenization creep slowly eastward toward the outer Cape, bringing multiplying chain stores and wiping out mom-and-pop operations, a growing number of towns and villages are rallying to preserve the picturesque appeal that fuels their economy, drawing tourists from across the country. The Town of Dennis adopted a bylaw regulating chain stores two years ago, following the example of Nantucket, which protected its downtown a year earlier. The Village of Centerville, in Barnstable, is in the midst of seeking special status from the Cape Cod Commission, the regional planning agency, to preserve its character.

In Chatham and elsewhere on the Cape, some residents believe they face a choice: Fight, or let the place they treasure slip away. What many fear is the arrival of fast-food chains, box stores, and strip malls that have sprawled across some parts of the Cape, especially Route 28 as it runs through Hyannis on its way to Chatham.

“I know change is inevitable, but somewhere, somehow, you have to say, ‘Stop,’ ’’ said Shirley Eldredge Maguire, a Chatham native and Village Market regular. “We can all look alike, Chatham, Harwich, Hyannis . . . I don’t want the flavor of the town to go away.’’

Organizers of a petition asking the grocery store’s landlord, town officials, and CVS to find a way to keep it open say that more than 10,000 people have signed it in less than a month, in a town with fewer than 7,000 year-round residents.

Supporters of the market say its small size and personal service recall a time before big chains, and its location, walking distance from senior and affordable housing, makes it essential. The owners - four former A&P employees who took over when the chain pulled out six years ago - work the aisles beside shoppers and greet them by name. They take orders by phone for delivery and stock the coolers with $6.99 reheatable dinners.

When Hertha Smith, 69, was sick, “they sent me a beautiful bouquet,’’ the regular customer said, her cart topped with store-made ham-and-bacon quiche and plump, fresh-baked butterscotch muffins. “It’s sort of like you’re part of the family.’’

The town’s loyalty has powered a feisty defense. At the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, executive director Lisa Franz said she is taking daily calls from residents who want to know what they can do to save the market. Some have devised their own strategies. The owner of the Chatham Coffee Co., Caroline Geishecker, ordered 3,000 postcards addressed to CVS’s real estate director and printed with a pledge not to patronize the pharmacy if it displaces the market. The cards are almost gone and she is ordering more to meet demand, she said.

“It’s the only thing people are talking about,’’ said Franz. “It’s part of the charm and beauty of the town that we don’t have big business, and it seems like there should be a way to make that part of the culture of Chatham.’’

Yesterday, an overflow crowd packed a public meeting scheduled by selectmen to discuss the controversy. The crowd rippled with dissent when someone suggested a compromise that would allow CVS and the market to share the space. The board chairman, Ronald Bergstrom, seemed to leave the door open to regulation of chain stores. “Maybe we will have to take a more aggressive stance in the future, given the trends,’’ he said, to applause.

An attempt to do just that was made earlier this year, when selectmen raised the possibility of a bylaw to limit chain businesses downtown, based on the similar efforts in Dennis and on Nantucket. But the plan was scrapped before a public hearing was held, after the town’s Historic Business District Commission protested that the bylaw would duplicate its oversight while unfairly excluding some businesses.

It “is not in the best interest of our town’s economy to exclude any business based on how they fit into a definition of ‘formula’ or ‘chain,’ ’’ the commission’s chairman, Eric Whiteley, wrote in a memo. “If a business meets all [our] requirements and provides a service or product for our citizens and visitors then that is good for our economic health.’’

The bylaw would have affected a small area downtown, not including the site of the Village Market.

To give Cape towns more tools for defending their distinctiveness, the Cape Cod Commission recently changed its rules to make it easier for officials to get regional review of development projects.

“We recognize that people want amenities, but they don’t want them on every corner, and there’s an effort to balance that,’’ said Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the commission.

Chatham is dense with one-of-a-kind retail outlets - the tiny, irresistibly adorable Marion’s Pie Shop anchors the main commercial strip - but it has long had chain stores in its midst, notable for their small size and seamless fit. In the heart of downtown, a brick Dunkin’ Donuts is tucked into a complex of T-shirt and souvenir shops, and a small CVS - packed with snacks, magazines, and makeup, but lacking a pharmacy - is housed in a former Main Street movie theater.

That store, deemed too small for a pharmacy by CVS, will close when the new store opens in 2011, said a company spokesman, Mike DeAngelis. “We will be a tenant on the site, not the property owner, and we played no role in the decision regarding the Village Market’s lease,’’ he wrote in an e-mail last week. “We understand the community’s desire to maintain a grocery in the town and our real estate developer has offered their assistance to the market.’’

The owners of the market building, Christopher and Richard Quincy of Bromley Realty Trust, did not return phone calls.

Jenna Russell can be reached at