Death of a Gypsy…

…and we don’t mean Carmen.

So, my local convenience store just closed a couple days ago–I ran across the street last night to get a couple tomatoes and found the “closed” sign on the door, and the interior was clearly in the process of being emptied.

Here’s a pic of the facade of the  Gypsy Market. Closed.

Now this brings up an interesting discussion–there was another “Neighborhood Market” around the corner that closed maybe 2 years ago. While the Gypsy seemed more in tune with the eclectic vibe of our urban ‘hood, neither its owner nor the owner of the Neighborhood Market struck me as being great business people, with solid plans for stability and growth. We need convenience stores downtown; we need local grocers; and we need supermarkets.

In Birmingham, for years we have heard the same argument. It goes like this: “Supermarket chains typically need approximately [insert high number here] people living within a 3-mile radius, and downtown is not ready yet. Not enough people.” More recently, there has been serious consideration of smaller, “urban footprint” type supermarkets that would be positioned geographically to serve both the north and south sides of central downtown–i.e. capturing the large UAB market to the southside.

What we’ve been missing is coordinated, professional efforts combined with incentives that other cities have used to induce supermarkets to come into areas traditionally avoided by chains that are oriented to the suburbs. Check out Greenlife Grocery in downtown Chattanooga which is like a mini-Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  And, unlike Birmingham, Chattanooga boasts a truly comprehensive, coordinated effort to induce a more mainstream supermarket into downtown: you can check out this executive summary from 2007 for a taste.

Cities cannot just wait for markets to come–they’ve got to get organized, aggressive, and in many cases offer incentives. Washington, DC has a specific incentive for inducing supermarkets to enter the city, which has had great success. I remember when the U Street neighborhood there was a relatively shabby area with no good supermarket. About 10 years ago the city passed their incentive law, and a developer put together a mixed-use project with Whole Foods as an anchor. The rest is history–the grocer helped spur retail and condo development across the neighborhood (although gentrification had started a few years earlier, Whole Foods accelerated it). Thanks to Maryland Route 5 for the pic:

Markets can be fantastic growth generators for neighborhoods. I think downtown can support both a full service supermarket, as well as at least a couple small convenience/local groceries, if they were done intelligently and backed by the right research and business plans. And, of course it would be nice if they could match the quirky vibe of downtown, as the Gypsy did manage to do.

And by the way, gentrification is a complex topic that will weave it’s way in and out of this blog. Suffice it to say that right now, downtown Birmingham has NO local grocers whatsoever, so we’re not talking about displacing local flavor with boring corporate chains. We’re talking about an essential service that’s needed. Now.

22 responses to “Death of a Gypsy…

  1. Jeremy: Excellent points about other places doing detailed research and recruitment on a grocery. Sad to learn Gypsy Market has closed, but not surprising. I think downtown needs an overall retail overlay study as done in other cities. Also, I voted for your RR Park project. I think these need to balance order and variety to make an interesting street wall, and your design has that.

    • Thanks Philip–I appreciate your interest in the blog and in what we were trying to accomplish in our design! And so many people want a market down here, I hope something organized can happen soon to spur that and other retail opportunities.

  2. Erin Stephenson

    I, too, don’t find it surprising Gypsy didn’t last (in fact, I’m surprised it made it as long as it did). I wholeheartedly give you dittos that there needs to be some serious study attached to integrating food delivery into the city center. My sister lives in Chattanooga and so I’ve watched Greenlife (in it’s original location on Barton in N. Chattanooga and now in its new setting) prosper and be a vital part of an economic development plan. I’m very excited about following your blog.

  3. So, so sad. Before we start building more bars or movie theaters or stores, WE NEED A GROCERY STORE DOWNTOWN!

    I e-mailed the CEO of Greenlife last year after I visited the Chattanooga one for the first time, and begged him to come to Bham. He actually responded, asking for some site suggestions, but nothing has happened from there.

    What can us regular schmoes to to help?

    • Hey Jason–I’m convinced Greenlife or something similar would be here already if we had the collective will and organization. Hopefully we can all help support a meaningfully organized effort soon to make this happen.

    • Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce


      The Firestone Building on 20th Street might be a contender.

      The old Torme’s on 2nd Avenue North & 25th Street might work, too. They lasted up until 2005 or 2006.

      Do you mind forwarding the email of Greenlife’s CEO to me?
      I’m at:


  4. Yeah, this was totally a bummer, although I heard there was some sort of scandal involved. Oh well.

    I just saw your blog today, it’s great! Keep it up. This city needs to hear from someone with your perspective.

  5. My sole memory of Gypsy Market: I tried to buy a Coke with a credit card. They refused the purchase, a violation of Mastercard policy. I left the Coke on the counter and walked out, never to return.

    Birmingham is in a predicament. Because the mass transit is awful, most urban dwellers still rely on having a car. Since they have to drive to get their groceries, they aren’t “built-in” customers for the yet-to-be-built downtown supermarket.

    So what incentive is there for any chain, from Winn Dixie to Trader Joe’s, to set up shop downtown?

    • Wade–I hear you. While some aspects of quirkiness are great (decor), others just don’t work (refusing a card), and a convenience store must be convenient, period. But, better managed and with a solid business plan, I think the convenience store would work.

      And I agree most people are not willing to give up cars–the transit situation is awful and will be discussed in other posts. But I’m convinced if you had a Trader Joe’s or even a Publix in midtown, convenient to UAB and downtown residents–it would make a killing. Yes, most people would still be driving, but they’d rather drive there than out the highway somewhere!

      • I think people are willing to give up cars, but mass transit in Birmingham is not a viable option for most people.

        Publix won’t open a store downtown, because it doesn’t fit the chain’s overall strategy. Trader Joe’s would more likely open in a suburb here before downtown.

        What other supermarket would be a better fit for downtown?

      • Publix actually has a relatively new urban market strategy that’s proven successful in several markets. They were supposedly very close a couple years ago to announcing 1 or 2 urban markets in Birmingham, but the developments which the markets were going to anchor didn’t end up going forward (one downtown, one in Lakeview).

        You can look at this brief summary of the opening of a downtown, reduced-size Publix in Orlando for some context :

        That being said, other chains may be a better fit than Publix for Birmingham.

  6. Check out this UrbanMarket in Dallas.
    The older north half of downtown Dallas was a ghost town 20 years ago (much like Birmingham when the retail left). They started bringing in loft re-developments and revived an incredible farmers market. Then 10 years ago, they renovated a building with a Market on the ground floor with an existing 2nd floor of an adjacent parking deck dedicated for its use. By comparison, they had no more residents living downtown at the time than we do now. It was definitely an urban style market, not a Publix. It’s style and size was similar to Tria, but not as expensive and it had more groceries. I remember thinking there might not be enough residents to support this market, but it wasn’t just a market. The market was located on the right side of the building, and there was a narrow connector in the middle leading to a similar sized space on the left side of the building. The connector had a fresh flower stand and newstand, and then there was a bar at the other end. This led the way to the cafe/restaurant on the other side. All were open to each other. It was very “mixed-use” and fresh at the time (which translates to could be fresh for Birmingham now). So not only were they getting residents doing there grocery shopping, but they were also gettting business people leaving work. They could stop by the bar and get a drink and get a bite to eat at the cafe and then even do some grocery shopping before they left to go home.
    I agree that there is not enough density right now in the north-side loft district to warrant our own grocery, but when you include the business district, Southside and UAB, there is no question about numbers. Cityville would have been a great location. A market/cafe near the Railroad Park wouldn’t be bad either.

    • Jason–great link to the Dallas market. I was in Dallas about that time, touring the (2) residential buildings they had at the time, and would have been likewise shocked that a market would work. It clearly works because it’s so cleverly tailored to the mix of residents and office workers, and is not your “standard” grocery.

      Rumor is V. Richard’s has committed to opening an “urban market” in the Pizitz building, if that project does indeed go forward this year as promised. If so, it will be interesting to see if their plan is based on Urban Market in Dallas. One worry: we don’t need “Tria” type pricing downtown. It’s got to be more reasonable.

  7. I lived at the Santa Fe Terminal Lofts in downtown Dallas (now called SoCo Urban Lofts) from ’99-’01. They converted to Condos. Only 12 of the 208 remain.
    Back to the grocery topic. As a loft dweller myself, I would like a market that fits the fabric of our urban community, not just a smaller version of Publix. Just like ONB is taking ideas about Railroad Park perimeter developments, is there anything similar about groceries. Is anyone actively searching for candidates, or are we just waiting for a store to notice us? Just as the other Jason mentioned above, if we contact these urban market owners, what next? Do we tell them to call ONB? There needs to be a forum or something where we can generate ideas and interest by making our voices heard. I’d be happy to get a market at the Pizitz Building, but is that the best location. Some basic market research would show where the residential, business and academic hot spots (and future hot spots) are.

    • My sense is that we need to form a committee of downtown developers, citizens, and real estate professionals who could develop a “white paper” suitable to give ONB, the City, and most importantly potential grocers. I would see the paper having neighborhood data (income, population, density, other demographics), possible sites identified, and so forth. There are models for this from other cities.

      I know ONB and others have led efforts before, but my hunch is none of them were underpinned with the resources to be comprehensive. Nor were they populated with people like yourself (and the other Jason) who have first-hand knowledge of what’s succeeded in similar situations.

      And I agree most of us would prefer Dallas’ Urban Market or Chattanooga’s GreenLife–but we’d probably embrace an Urban Publix as a compromise.

  8. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    I’m wondering if the old Firestone Building on 20th Street could be converted into a “Lorino’s”-style grocery?

    That building is historic, and almost identical to the one still standing in Brooklyn, NY and Miami. I think L.A. has one left, too.

    Also, there is the “Torme’s” location. They made it for so very long, I don’t see why another go at it couldn’t be made. We need immigrants to come in and see the potential there.

    • I know the Firestone building has been considered in the recent past for a market. To me, the location is ideal–central to both northside and midtown housing, as well as the UAB campus, with easy access for pedestrians as well as cars (and bikes!).

      Our understanding is the Torme family is unwilling to either sell or reinvest in a supermarket at their former location downtown.

  9. perhaps local chains such as the pig or western would be a great compromise between chain and local quirky. They already have distribution and can easily transfer products.

    • Interesting idea. Whether the Pig or Western would expand into a neighborhood so relatively close to Highland Park and Forest Park (where each company already has a store) is a question. If V. Richards does open a location at Pizitz, and it’s successful, then that could be the answer.

  10. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    Well, as a downtown unemployed artist, I have PLENTY of time to devote to this issue. I’m willing to do the legwork or whatever needed to jumpstart this from talk to reality. I still think the Firestone Building is THE perfect place… and the Streamline Moderne architecture lends itself to landmark retail status. Now, if V. Richards is committed to the Pizitz that’s awesome too (and a more convenient walk for me), but I think the Firestone is still best.

  11. Martin Wojtyna

    I understand Publix will open a grocery store in the soon-to-be-renovated Pizitz building downtown. Anyone else heard this? It’d be great for me!

    • Martin–while this may be true, the rumor most have heard is that V. Richard’s, the Forest Park specialty grocer, will open a store there. Just looking at the floor space available, I’m not sure it’s enough even for Publix’ urban model. But of course I could be proven wrong.

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