Holding Out

This isn’t Mayberry.

Slipping away are the days when store owners know you by name, you can pay on a tab and deals are made with a handshake. For one Charlottesville Mom-and-Pop shop, holding on to that ideal is more than a nostalgic whim: it’s a matter of principle and necessity.Look while you can. On the corner of Emmet Street and Barracks Road, across the way from the chain of multinational stores, you’ll see a remnant of yesterday – the humble, folksy Meadowbrook Shopping Centre.

"When we first moved in, Mrs. Mary Wheeler wanted to keep the shopping center like it was: an old-fashioned hardware store, an old-fashioned drug store and an old-fashioned grocery store that makes local deliveries," recalls Jean Anderson of Anderson’s Carriage Food House, one of a dozen stores in the Meadowbrook center. "After we moved in, she had a stroke and, shortly afterward, passed away." Suddenly, the old-fashioned hardware store was gone. Things started changing. People started moving.

"Meadowbrook was probably the first shopping center I can recall in Charlottesville," says Ronnie Kite, owner of Meadowbrook Hardware. In 1954 it was built by Harry Wheeler on a field behind Carol’s Tearoom and a filling station. In came a drive-up restaurant called Gus’ (now The Tavern), Meadowbrook Pharmacy, the hardware store, a car wash and a laundromat.

According to those who worked there, it was more than business, it was community. To this day, for instance, Meadowbrook Pharmacy still delivers within a three-mile radius. The Andersons let patrons pay on a tab and make home deliveries to the elderly. Meadowbrook Hardware, which relocated to Preston Avenue in 1998, keeps up the tradition of knowing its customers. "If we don’t know the names, we recognize the faces," says Kite.

When Harry Wheeler passed away in 1981, his wife, Mary, took over the running of Meadowbrook. "Everybody loved Mrs. Mary," says Jean Anderson.

"Tough lady, but a good landlord," adds Tavern owner Shelly Gordon.

Mary Wheeler was famous for her page-and-a-half leases. "It basically said if you didn’t pay by the 10th, she had the right to evict you," recalls Gordon. She also demanded the lessees use their own names, not their business’ names on the contract. "Made it personal," says Gordon.

All of which makes the recent suits in Charlottesville circuit courts truly hit home. The court docket speaks for itself: Meadowbrook Shopping Centre, LLC v. Ronald Kite, Meadowbrook Shopping Centre, LLC v. Fred Lundmark, Meadowbrook Shopping Centre, LLC v. Edwin and Jean Anderson.

"It’s been a nightmare," says Jean Anderson, sitting among piles of legal papers in the back of her family’s store. In 1999, Meadowbrook, under the new stewardship of Mary’s daughter Clarabell and William S. Rice Real Estate, attempted to terminate their lease. The Andersons fought to stay – a right they maintain is theirs by law.

"We’re good tenants," Jean Anderson says. "We try to keep it clean. My husband goes around the parking lot and sweeps up the cigarette butts…We try to do exactly what old Mrs. Wheeler asked us to do." Nonetheless, Meadowbrook insists they must go.

 

The case hinges on a conflict of clauses. Paragraph four of their boilerplate lease states that either Meadowbrook or the Andersons may terminate the lease by serving the other with written notice. But addendum nine of their lease states that, after their first five years, the Andersons have three consecutive five-year options to continue the lease – last September, they exercised that option.

The Andersons’ lawyer, Garrett Smith, says the addendum supercedes the old clause. Meadowbrook lawyer Robert Blodinger sees no conflict in meaning, contending that the options are only viable if the landlord doesn’t terminate the lease first – which it attempted to do last August. During the preliminary hearing, Judge Edward Hogshire commented, "Isn’t that a little bit of a stretch?"

Property manager Rice agrees that the Andersons have a long-term lease. When asked about the Anderson’s future, he said that they are entitled to that spot. Moreover, he said that there is no plan for a new tenant at Andersons. When the discussion moved to the recent litigation, however, he appeared to change his tune. "Talking about the case is off limits," he insisted. Clarabell Wheeler and her legal counsel declined to comment, surprised that local media is even interested in tracking the case.

For some, though, this court battle is about more than words on a document. It’s about livelihoods – and tactics.

"They have done everything in their power to make us leave," says Jean Anderson. "Mean, mean things." These allegations are laid out in the Andersons’ 25-item Breach of Contract countersuit, which charges, among other things, that Meadowbrook agent Bill Rice has repeatedly harassed, disrupted and damaged the Andersons’ business by falsely reporting unfounded violations of health and safety laws to state and local officials.

It also alleges that Meadowbrook was aware of roof leaks and negligently failed to fix them. One example is a large chunk of ceiling that swelled and caved in over a food case and stayed unrepaired for five weeks (and remains so at the printing of this article). Rice claims, "When we find a problem, we react to it promptly," but, when asked specifically about the hole in the ceiling, Rice replied, "condensation."

"I’m not going to tell you what I really think of Clarabell Wheeler or Bill Rice," says Mrs. Anderson. The Andersons apparently are not alone: One anonymous Meadowbrook tenant said something unprintable about Rice – another hint of the underlying dislike some feel for recent upheavals at Meadowbrook.

Corky Pace, of Pace Painting, who left after Meadowbrook doubled his rent in 1998, says he couldn’t get along with the new corporate management. Pace says money wasn’t really the problem. "I left Meadowbrook because I didn’t like what was going on and I didn’t like Bill."

Other former tenants apparently felt likewise. Pace recalls speaking to Dave Cooke, who owned Cooke’s Laundromat: "I saw Mr. Cooke out there and Bill’s name comes up with a few adjectives next to it."

Last August, one Meadowbrook business prevailed against its lessor’s contentions. Meadowbrook attempted to evict Pet Barn for an alleged code-violation. They took it to court and lost. Now, Meadowbrook is appealing the case. Plus, they have demanded that Pet Barn get rid of Ally, its pet alligator. A line in the lease prohibits pets on the premises. Of course, the store is called "Pet Barn," which would make one doubt the aptitude of whoever drafted the lease. Fred Lundmark, the store’s manager, declined to comment.

Pet Barn, too, has an option to renew its lease – as do most of the proprietors in Meadowbrook – but not all of them share the Andersons’ travails.

"We’re happy as a clam" says Mary Humphrey, owner of Cottonwood, one of Charlottesville’s premier quilting stores, where the Quilters Guild meets every other Tuesday.

"They’ve always treated me fairly," says Willie Lamar, owner of Meadowbrook Pharmacy. "My lease is solid," he adds. Although, it, too, will be up in three years, with an option to renew for five more years.

John Cassell of Great Graphics discount framemakers is more than generous in his praise. "[Meadowbrook] did a great job: new electrical work, redid the front, asphalted the drive – made a major improvement in the space." Meadowbrook is, indeed, shaping up.

 

Currently, Meadowbrook is in the midst of a quarter-million dollar facelift including new facades and, it seems, new businesses. The most recent addition is Spring Street, a hip women’s clothing boutique, slated to open October 15.

Ostensibly, the revamped Meadowbrook would have no place for shops like Meadowbrook Hardware, which left in 1998. When the hardware store’s lease expired, a new lease was drawn up in less-favorable terms. The rent was increased and, more importantly, Meadowbrook would no longer allow tractor trailers in the parking lot…without which the hardware store could not operate.

"If [the new lease] had been anywhere reasonable, we still would have been there," says owner Kite. The store almost disappeared completely. "Could have just closed down and sold out," says Kite. "Had a lot of people working for me for a number of years…I thought we could move and reopen and keep on. So we did."

Meadowbrook pursued Kite with a suit in 2001, alleging he owed money for repairs to the property. The case was ultimately declared a non-suit and stricken from the docket.

Kite doesn’t see much future for mom-and-pops like his. "Small businesses like this, if you were starting out today, here, you’d have a hard time. Having been at it going on 41 years now, that’s helping us continue on."

Shelly Gordon’s Tavern, too, hangs on such tenuous threads. Under Mary Wheeler, he could get by. "Now [Meadowbrook] is nothing but a damn business. My lease goes up compounded 5 percent every year. It gets to the point of no return. Nobody’s going to be able to afford it."

Gordon attributes the change to Rice, who, after an elderly Mary Wheeler transferred ownership of her 4.5 acres to Meadowbrook Shopping Centre, LLC, instituted six-page leases and escalation policies. "A little heavy handed," says Gordon, "trying to sue people to kick them out of here." It’s nothing like the old days. "Mary used to come in here and be very gracious. We’d hug and all that stuff. Since Mary died, Clarabell hasn’t been in here once."

The Tavern has three years before it faces its option to renew for five more. Gordon is not optimistic. "I don’t think the Tavern will be around for another eight years," he says. "Mom-and-pops, I think they’re a thing of the past."

What may fill their absence? Rumors abound. Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreen’s allegedly bid on Meadowbrook property. Rice contends, however, that no sound offers were made. Moreover, he says that Charlottesville’s mom-and-pop institutions are not in danger of vanishing. "There are no plans whatsoever for the Tavern and Andersons," says Rice. Although, he "wouldn’t turn down a CVS or Walgreen’s."

"If the offer’s big enough, [Clarabell Wheeler]’s going to sell out," predicts Gordon. "If so, everything is going to be changed around, an office building put up and a CVS or a Rite Aid."

What then happens to the Andersons? Cassel from Great Graphics sees a simple resolution: "They have to buy Andersons out. Andersons has a lease. They’re going to be hard pressed to get rid of them. Obviously, if you’re willing to write a big enough check, it’s a done deal."

 

One of the key pieces remaining in this puzzle is the parcel directly on the corner, occupied by another definitive mom-and-pop, ALC (A Local Choice) Copies. Their property is owned by Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw and therefore must be negotiated separately if a large buyer wants the entire corner. ALC owner John Chmil is glad to not be in the Andersons’ shoes. "Coran has been great," he says.

Jim Morris, who manages Capshaw’s Meadowbrook property, says not to expect anything to happen in the space. "ALC should be there for a while." He was not at liberty to discuss the matter further.

Ultimately, Chmil acknowledges the inevitability of a larger business replacing his. "We’ll be here until the wrecking ball comes." He adds, "But I don’t know why Charlottesville needs another CVS."

The Andersons, too, see the writing on the wall. "A year ago, we were so tired of all of this we would have taken a little bit of money and left," says Jean Anderson – $250,000 to be exact. "We’d like our moneyback that we put into this. At one point, that’s all we were asking for." Now, it’s gone too far. "It has cost us a lot of money, legal fees every month for the past three years."

"We’re exhausted," adds Jean’s son Ted, who helps run the store. "If we didn’t have the stress and financial burden through the last four or five years we could have taken all that energy and finances and put it back into the business."

Jean Anderson elaborates, "I’m not going to let somebody kick me out on the street when it took 23 years to get here. Ed and I are close to retirement age. I’ve got three children that work here, there’s no way I’m going to let them go on the street." She puts her fist down. "We’ll fight this. If it takes every penny I’ve got, I will fight on, because I’m not wrong. I’m right."

Shelly Gordon hopes it won’t come to that for the Andersons or for the Tavern. "I don’t know if Clarabell is really sincere about holding onto her father’s treasured memories or whether she’s going to see the light." Only the upcoming months will tell.

But Ted Anderson paints a picture all-too-common for today’s mom-and-pop shops: "I am almost 40-years old. I have three kids. And I don’t know where I am going to be next year…If everything falls through, I guess I’ll get a job in corporate America." If worst comes to worst, perhaps CVS, Rite-Aid or Walgreen’s will have an opening. And then this won’t be Mayberry at all.

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