In my opinion, corner stores are best test of whether you live in a “real city.” Knowing that at any reasonable hour of the day or night you can walk around the corner into a brightly lit store full of sandwiches, shaving cream, milk, pet food, toilet paper, cough syrup, and a hundred things people need in their everyday lives is a freedom that defines urban life.
That’s why great cities are measured by the quality and ubiquity of corner stores. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into a Manhattan corner deli (or “bodega,” as Andrew Yang would say). They are case studies in efficiency, using space in ways known only to submarines or airplane cabins. By the same token, 7-11s in Japan are everywhere and chock full of anything people need. This is especially true for their convenience food, arrays of pre-packaged and fresh sandwiches and bento boxes that blow away most American groceries in terms of health, price, and quality. In general, the corner stores of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a long way to go to match the convenience of the world’s great cities.
Yet there are always exceptions. Hands down, St. Paul’s best corner store is Tim and Tom’s Speedy Market in St. Anthony Park, the only Twin Cities corner shop that competes with a great New York deli. Walking into the mundane building off Como Avenue, you’re immediately greeted with a message board covered in business cards and hand-written notes about odd jobs or rooms for rent. Just ahead of you lies a basket of fresh cookies, and a cooler full of unique sandwiches and salads, constantly produced by back-room workers.
The rest of the market is full of narrowly spaced shelves stacked to the ceiling with dry goods, produce, and basic supplies that rival any big box grocery. Measured in terms of products-per-square-foot, I’ve not seen its match in Minnesota.
As owner Tom Spreigl describes it, the market evolved over the years from a local grocery named Blomberg’s back in the 1920s into part of the Speedy Market convenience chain, run by local dairy enterprise Schroeder (now Agropur).
“Tim, my business partner, started his career with Speedy back in ’81 working in the meat department,” said Spreigl. “I started working for Speedy in 1978 in high school and never left. I worked with them in various forms, up through managers, and did some deli supervising. In about 1995, they decided to sell off the stores, and we came back here to run it. [We] asked them to buy it from them, and they said OK.”
These days, the Speedy Market has evolved into an anchor for the close-knit St. Anthony Park neighborhood. The details inside, and the array of items, reflect the 40 years of work that Spreigl and his staff have put into the place.
“It’s harder than people realize,” said Spreigl. “It’s tough on the body. When you’re an owner-operator, you’re a little bit of everything: in charge of personnel, doing most of the ordering, a lot of the stock work. It’s constant, everyday, coming in and going out, small fires and big fires to put out.”
Across town at Kamp’s
The Twin Cities’ best corner stores don’t have to be fancy, but they do tend to have meat counters. For years I lived in St. Paul’s North End, a few doors down the street from a 130-year-old family grocery store named Kamp’s Food Market. I can’t count the number of times that Kamp’s saved my butt by remaining open until 9 p.m., the only place in the neighborhood that carried basic household goods and a wide array of food.
Like most of the remnant independent grocers, the heart of Kamp’s place was always the meat counter. The array of fresh and frozen cuts of meat at Kamp’s is unparalleled, everything from pig’s feet to short ribs, alongside the homemade brats and other fare.
“Kamp’s has been in business for 134 years. Lisa [Kamp] and I have been running it for almost the last 40. Running a small business is all-consuming. We’ve given it our all for a looong [sic] time. Everybody retires. It’s our turn. Nobody loves the North End more than I do. I work here, I live here and almost 100% of my donations of time & money go here. We’ve never had more than seven-day vacation and very few of those. I’m certainly not complaining. I’ve made thousands of friends and millions of memories here, but, for the lack of a better word, I’m old & tired.”
Much like Tom Spreigl five miles to the west, Paul and his wife, Lisa, have been putting in long hours, keeping the store open for more than 13,000 straight days. The hard work has caught up to him. As Kamp described: “I want to jump into a car and have zero plans. I have family and friends all around the country I’ve never visited. It’s time to bother them a bit!”
There’s a big economic gap between the Rice Street neighborhood and St. Anthony Park, where Kamp’s and Tim and Tom’s markets are respectively located. The former is a working-class area that’s been struggling with disinvestment for a generation, seeing businesses close up shop and struggling to deal with some of St. Paul’s worst poverty. Meanwhile, St. Anthony Park has been St. Paul’s preeminent bourgeois enclave since the 19th century, and while it’s diverse in many ways, residents there have an average income that’s 50% higher than in the North End. That gap helps to explain the differing fortunes of the two markets.
Another key variable is easy bike and transit access. Corner markets rely on a steady stream of customers coming by on foot, drawing from the immediate neighborhood or by an easy bus ride. It helps a ton that Speedy Market sits directly on the busy No. 3 bus line, and next to convenient bike lane. Unlike people driving cars, who tend to fill their trunks at the largest big-box groceries they can find, transit customers are more likely to shop local.
The ’15-minute neighborhood’
The latest hot trend in urban planning is the idea of the so-called “15-minute neighborhood,” a concept that you can find in plans all across the country. Like many planning concepts, the notion that you should be able to walk to buy a bottle of milk or a light bulb is not rocket science. Making those neighborhoods into a reality remains a challenge that might be a key to fighting climate change.
For example, the St. Paul 2040 Comprehensive Plan includes a variation of the idea in what it terms “neighborhood nodes.” These are defined as places where residents have most things they need: “amenities within walking distance of their home, such as neighborhood businesses and grocery stores, parks, playgrounds and open space, and libraries.” Great corner stores will have to play a key role in cultivating these kinds of neighborhoods, and the city’s recently adopted plan calls for policies that will incentivize more than 70 “nodes” across the city, a proposal that relies heavily on good corner stores.
If that’s the goal, there’s a long way to go. Most corner stores in St. Paul offer little more than Frito-Lays and cigarettes, places where you’re hard pressed to find an onion. Stores like Kamp’s and Speedy Market remain a rarity across town.
Kamp’s remains for sale on Western Avenue, and Paul and Lisa aren’t closing up shop yet.
Meanwhile, Tom Spreigl is not ready to retire. Instead, he’s buoyed by the interest his sons have in the family business, promising to keep the city’s best corner store thriving into the future.
“I’m lucky because my business partner decided to retire three years ago, but both of my sons are interested in continuing on with the legacy,” Spreigl said. “Gosh, yeah, I’m excited about that. They’ve been working here with me since they were little. It seems a natural fit for us.”