The store had the feeling, stubbornly, of a party. There was generically cheerful music playing more loudly than you'd expect over the speakers -- "Sweet Caroline," maybe some Stevie Wonder, I don't really remember -- and the narrow aisles of Witherbee's, the self-proclaimed first downtown Flint grocery store in over 30 years, faltered under the strain of the shoppers who had descended like vultures upon its discounted corpse. In front of me in the checkout line, a young boy peek-a-booed behind his mother's leg.
Behind me, a very pregnant teen with acne stood victoriously over a mound of chocolate bars ("My pregnant ass wants junk food," she announced to no one in particular), while her younger brother sulked around the store, alternately fingering his wispy, cookie duster mustache and the half-smoked cigarette tucked behind his ear. Their father lamented loudly about the closing of Witherbee's and the general decline of Flint with a middle-aged woman in a business suit who was buying four bottles of wine at wholesale. "Such a shame, such a shame," they said, over and over. Normally, these aisles were empty, and I had never seen most of these customers before.
Which was why, I guess, the store was closing.
Witherbee's has stood for the past year as first an eager, now a very reluctant symbol of downtown Flint. First was the flushed excitement of the white lights and black-and-yellow-checkered tile of a once-abandoned building ushering food and toiletries into a neighborhood that hadn't seen such teeming shelves in decades.
The style and tone of Witherbee's matched the new lofts and restaurants that have sprung up in recent years along Saginaw Street: large windows, bright lights, a sharp but pleasing contrast to the historically stunning, sometimes crumbling, brick office buildings and golden-lighted arches that hearken back to Flint's heyday. Perhaps most significantly, Witherbee's is located north of the Flint River.
As a recent transplant to the city, I didn't fully appreciate the weight of this fact, especially since I moved into the Durant, kitty corner from Witherbee's, also holding its ground north of the river. In the '80s and '90s, the Flint River was the northern boundary of downtown Flint, with the decaying carcass of the Durant, a once-fancy hotel, standing as Cerberus to the north end of the city.
You didn't go north of the river. Now, the landscape has changed: the Durant has been renovated, the Carriagetown houses slowly fill with students, Hoffman's Deli battles an ever-expanding lunch crowd, and you don't go north of Rally's, almost half a mile beyond the river. In 2010, these blocks, these houses, these people living and working in downtown Flint deserved a full-service grocery store.
And in 2011, they don't.
There has been a steady stream of speculation over the root of Witherbee's failure, which it first broadcast over the summer when it was having trouble paying its bills: uncooperative investors, inexperienced managers, bad location, the rent is too damn high. It should be noted that Witherbee's Holding Company, which first bought and retrofitted the building, is seeking experienced grocery store operators to take the reins of a business model -- selling groceries in a neighborhood that doesn't have them -- it still believes can work.
And it should be noted that the Grainery Natural Grocery, farther south and a block west of Saginaw, has been hawking organic food since 1979. This neighborhood is not deprived of all hope, nor, strictly speaking, of groceries. (Though I maintain that man cannot live on specialty meats alone.) But it's hard not to think, as an emergency financial manager breathes down the city's back, that small failures like the closing of a young, local grocery store are not just bad management and high rent.
It's hard not to think that they are emblematic of something deeper, something more vast and less curable, something that plagues the city and state, as simply and Einsteinly there as gravity. It's hard not to think that inevitably, no matter what efforts are made, downtown Flint, as I overheard in Witherbee's on the night before it closed, "doesn't get to keep nice things."
I have not been living in the city long, but I wonder if I will forget the feeling of standing in line at Witherbee's that night. The music was loud, yes, and the chatter of the people masked, superficially, the somberness of the moment. My mind was quiet, though, still and a little sad. The little boy in front of me kept staring at me, so I smiled at him; the teenager behind me prattled on about her pregnancy and had her younger brother -- wait, was he her brother? -- grab her another chocolate bar. I felt personally at stake in this defeat: did they feel it too?
Finally, I was rung up. Cans of soup and oatmeal and cereal bars: things that wouldn't go bad quickly, things that were left on the shelf after the first rush. I recognized the man bagging my groceries as one of the store's operators, whom I had seen many times before, but we didn't talk. There was nothing to say: the thing speaks for itself. Plus, I was trying to figure out how to carry all my bounty across the street.
The man stacked in my arms three brown paper bags, adorned with a simultaneously feisty and smiley cartoon bee. A fun, friendly logo. The man said nothing until I was at the door, pushing out of the white light and back into the rain.
"Thank you for shopping at Witherbee's."