January 17, 1999
IDEAL MARKET CLOSES
CUSTOMERS BID GOODBYE TO STORE OWNER, FRIEND
By Steve Kuchera, News-Tribune, Jan. 18, 1999
On Sunday afternoon, Harvey Winthrop did what he has done for years — he stood behind the counter at the Ideal Market and Bakery, greeting people coming through the door.
But this time it was different. Winthrop wasn’t just greeting customers and friends, he was welcoming guests to a going-away party.
Winthrop has sold the Ideal Market, the last downtown Duluth grocery, and will shortly close the family business he’s operated since the mid-1960s.
“Thank you for coming,” he said as more old customers came in.
“Take care of yourself,” Anita C. Cerio told Winthrop, giving him a hug. “It’s been a pleasure having you here. This was the best store down here.”
When George Winthrop and Lewis Camenker founded the market in 1921, there were at least 30 similar grocery stores downtown.
But over the years, shoppers’ habits changed and small, neighborhood stores vanished. Last fall, son Harvey Winthrop sold the building at 102 W. First St. to Life House Youth Center, which plans to convert it into a teen center.
He hasn’t decided what he’ll do after closing the store later this month, although he’s considering selling real estate.
“I’m used to working 12 hours a day, six days a week,” he said. “I’m used to staying busy.”
“He’ll find things to do,” although it will be nice to have more time together, to see friends and family, said Esther, Harvey’s wife of 38 years.
Esther called Sunday’s get-together the family’s “Mitzva” — good deed — for the day. Esther and Harvey Winthrop and their daughter Pam Lauer greeted people as they entered the store, guiding them to a guest book and a table full of food.
Customers and friends gathered and visited in aisles between half-empty shelves. Son-in-law Bill Lauer videotaped guests’ reminiscences of Harvey and George Winthrop and the store.
During a lull, Winthrop, 69, said he’ll miss the people the most. And they will miss him.
“He was always pleasant to everyone,” Cerio said. “He treated everyone with respect. He’s a real gentleman.”
“He did favors for me,” said Ron Jensen. “He would deliver things. He gave me rides to the bus station. I hate to see him leave. He’s been a real friend.”
“He’s a people person, very concerned about people,” Bob Bulloch said.
Over the years, Winthrop showed his concern in various ways. He held the money for people who were down and out, picking out their groceries and delivering them as needed. Several years ago he stopped selling lottery tickets, feeling that many customers couldn’t afford them.
Winthrop’s son Marc couldn’t attend Sunday’s party, but he wrote to tell how, when he was a teen-ager, he became upset over his father’s habit of simply ordering shoplifters out of the store, rather than having them arrested.
Then, one day, Marc chased a man carrying a boom box who had stolen a carton of cigarettes and knocked down a friend. Marc tackled the man. In the fall, the shoplifter’s stereo shattered.
“When I looked at his face, at that moment, I realized that the boom box laying in pieces may have been his only possession,” Marc wrote. “I suddenly understood why my father was so lenient with some of the people who frequented the Ideal Market, how he has always and continues to live out his values, and how he has become such an important person in so many people’s lives.”
The News Tribune ran another story about Ideal Market a couple months earlier, on Nov. 26, 1998:
IT WAS IDEAL
THE LAST OF DOWNTOWN GROCERS WILL CLOSE SHOP IN JANUARY
By Paul Adams, News-Tribune
In an era of 24-hour warehouse retailing, the Ideal Market and Bakery is a bit of Americana: A melting pot of a grocery store where downtown professionals looking for ethnic specialties and street people looking for basic staples get in line behind the same cash register.
Whether the customers are paying with a Visa Gold Card or food stamps, owner Harvey Winthrop usually greets them by name with the same resonant, radio-quality voice.
“I like people, there’s no question about it,” Winthrop said while on a break from the front counter. “I’m going to miss the Ideal very, very much.”
The last of the downtown grocers — and one of the few that still makes house calls — will close sometime in January. Winthrop, 69, recently sold the building, at 102 W. 1st St., to Life House Youth Center, which plans to convert it into a teen center.
The store will be missed by downtown workers who rely on the market for fresh ricotta or feta cheese, grape leaves and other specialties. But the loss may prove greatest among the downtown’s poor people and among elderly shut-ins, who lack transportation or the ability to shop on their own. To them, the Ideal Market has been everything its name suggests.
“He (Winthrop) has taken care of a lot of people over the years and I don’t think anybody has any understanding of how much he really has done from that perspective,” said Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons.
Lyons went to work as a delivery boy for Winthrop right out of high school in the 1970s. He remembers Winthrop as part grocer and part banker for the city’s down and out.
Winthrop would hold their money for them and pick out their groceries as needed. Lyons would deliver the parcels to many of downtown’s flophouses and low-income apartment buildings, such as the Palmer House, the State Hotel and Gardner Hotel.
“He talked to them and treated them with lots of respect, and many times gave people things because he knew they couldn’t afford to buy them,” Lyons recalled.
Winthrop never called attention to such services, or his generosity. As Lyons put it, “He never tooted his own horn.” But word gets around on the street.
Over the years, many longtime customers — rich and poor — have rewarded good service with uncommon loyalty.
Lucille Rugowski first sampled Ideal Market produce as a child growing up on Park Point. Her father, who worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, became a customer after seeing the market’s goods delivered to ships visiting the Duluth harbor. As an adult, Rugowski carried on the tradition and has been a customer for more than 50 years.
“I appreciate that we’ve had a charge account there for many, many years and he delivers,” said Rugowski, who doesn’t own a car. With few exceptions, she gets all of her groceries from Winthrop.
“I walked through Cub (Foods) once and that was enough for me,” she said. “It’s too big, too many things.”
Though the Ideal Market remains a sentimental favorite, business hasn’t been good for Winthrop the past two years. Downtown just doesn’t attract shoppers like it used to, Winthrop says.
Founded in 1921 by Winthrop’s father, George, and a partner, Lewis Camenker, the Ideal Market was once one of downtown’s larger grocery stores, but it had plenty of competition. In the early years, the store was among at least 30 similar grocery stores serving downtown shoppers and business people.
George Winthrop, who later split with his partner, struggled to maintain his share of the market through world wars, depression, cold wars and recessions. Harvey took over in about 1965 after finishing college and a stint in the Army.
Over the years, the competition slowly faded along with the department stores and offices that left town or moved to Miller Hill.
In 1978, Red Owl closed and the Ideal Market was all alone downtown.
“My father died in 1977 and my mother in 1978. Neither one lived to see that we were the last grocery store downtown,” Winthrop said.
It was a victory for the store and business was exceptionally good for a few years. But retailing trends would soon overtake the Ideal Market.
“Stores started this new concept . . . where they locate on the outskirts of the city with big parking lots. They’re geared to the automobile,” Winthrop said.
Duluthians are known for thrift, and it didn’t take long for the traffic to diminish downtown as shoppers flocked to big-box discount stores. That combined with the loss of jobs on West First Street made it tough for the full-service grocery store to thrive.
“For years, parking was quite a problem downtown,” Winthrop said. “I’m sorry to say today parking is really not a problem . . . because I feel there is not enough retail left downtown.”
First Street retailers say they will miss the Ideal Market and the niche it filled for customers and downtown workers.
“I think it’s a draw for my business as well as his,” said Paul Draeger, owner of Duluth Liquor, 32 W. First St. “There’s nothing (like it) downtown.”
But the Duluth business community may not be rid of Winthrop for long. He doesn’t plan to rest much in retirement. In fact, he may even get a job selling real estate, volunteering or promoting Duluth in some fashion. It’s time to move on, he says, without regret. And he’s certain his parents would approve of the decision.
“They would be extremely happy and they would be very proud of me for having lasted this long and being the only grocer downtown,” Winthrop said. “I’ve had good years in the business and they would have been very happy with that.”
Winthrop hasn’t set a date for closing yet. It will probably occur sometime in mid-January. Sometime before then, he will announce a farewell party for all his customers.
Share your memories of Ideal Market and downtown Duluth in general by posting a comment.
This post originally appeared in the News Tribune Attic in April 2011.