Collingswood Grocery Store Controversy: What’s Happening With National Market?

Some businesses just don't play in the burbs.

Collingswood’s current controversy is the National Market, a space that is not really functioning as a market these days. For years now, all I’ve known about the place is that nobody goes there because, basically, there’s nothing inside but a lottery machine.

The current owners are keeping inconsistent hours, ignoring complaints, and racking up health code violations. Both on the street and in comments on Collingswood Patch, rumors are flying over what might move into the space, as well as what’s going on in there now.

The former longtime owners who kept the store bright, full, clean and friendly, retired and the business went through a series of different owners, the store and its contents degenerating year after year, until its current state of near-empty shelves. In response to the National’s imminent closing, Carolyn Busa, a Collingswood native and a young comedian, jokingly lamented on Patch over where she will be able to buy her “broken taco shells and dusty jars of Ragu,” but described it most accurately when she wrote, “Every time I’ve been there the place looked like it had just been robbed: Lights flickering, products on the floor, no one around.”

People are wondering what is really going on in this space, since lottery alone doesn’t seem like it would support the business or its taxes. Some are saying it could be a front for lots of things from illegal drugs, to coupon exchange, to illegal immigrants.

Others note that Collingswood is not a feudal state and that Jim Maley, our mayor, is not a king, able to do what he wants with businesses that don’t fit some image of Collingswood that he or other borough officials have. “Eminent domain” has been thrown out as a possibility, but it would be a last resort.

It’s no surprise that commenters on Patch are all chiming in on what they’d like to see in the store instead, and it’s also no surprise that people aren’t “listening” to, i.e. reading one another. People are using the comment space to lash out at the Mayor for other issues, to attempt to band together to form a food co-op, to lash out at each other, and mostly to offer their suggestions for the store space. Many voices are clamoring for a Trader Joe’s (one actually chants, “Trader Joes! Trader Joes!). Other voices are clearly explaining why that won’t happen. I admit my propensity for Trader Joe’s veggie and flaxseed and tortilla chips, and I affirm that their gyoza are the best frozen gyoza money can buy. But I am realistic enough to know Collingswood is a dry town with no parking.

When I first moved to Collingswood 21 years ago, “the National,” as locals call it, was a fully functioning and fabulous grocery store. I would walk up there with my first born in her stroller almost every day. I bought all of our deli and produce there, and single items I needed for that night’s dinner. I felt European or uber-American or something—Euro-quaint, if you will. Since then, Collingswood has gentrified to the 10th power and the downtown has boomed, except for this one, large and perfectly located, space.

But here’s what I’m thinking: We have a grocery store that is not functioning like a grocery store, offering less than what we expect from one, at best. It was just less than a year ago when a shop on Haddon Avenue was providing more than what was expected of it. The Zhen Salon was shut down due to evidence that at least one of its employees was offering sexual favors for cash. A different kind of happy ending in Collingswood.

When that bust happened, everyone I knew began telling stories of their own experience in or about the salon. Mine was this: I went in there once, curious about prices for pedicures and reflexology. No one was at the desk up front, and there was nary a bottle of nail polish to be found. I tentatively said, “Hello?” to the empty space. A woman came out of a curtained area in the back, flush-faced. When I asked her if she had a price sheet, she simply looked at me and said, “No. No appointments.” I simply figured the place was weird, and awfully good at what they do. I guess I was right on both counts.