Center City Doesn’t Need Another Wawa

Weymouth: With another Wawa on the way, it seems like the old-school Philly corner store is an endangered institution.

Photo credit: Lauren Siegert via Flickr.

Photo credit: Lauren Siegert via Flickr.

Thursday morning, Wawa will unveil renderings for its new Center City location. If history is any indication, the plans will, to put it mildly, be well received.

When the chain’s mothership opened at Broad and Walnut last fall, Mayor Michael Nutter was on hand to give his blessing, even inviting the Pope to drop by for a hoagie. Eagles cheerleaders warmed up the crowd, while none other than the Philadelphia Orchestra played the national anthem and “Amazing Grace.” (As much as this reads like a Parks and Recreation episode, it all really happened.)

As someone who grew up here, there’s a part of me that understands this. You simply don’t escape Northeast Philly without a deep, abiding respect for Wawa, without basking in the glow of its iced tea case, without understanding the beauty of a 3 a.m. parking lot breakfast sandwich.

Which is why I’m hesitant to say this: We don’t need another Wawa in the city.

There’s nothing wrong with chains, per se. After all, they’re simply former mom-and-pops that figured out how to do it better. I would sooner eat my Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup than wait 20 minutes at a “bagelry.” I have worshipped at the altar of the Center City Cheesecake Factory, and every once in awhile, I sneak over to the Front Street Pizza Hut and smuggle home dinner. (Forgive me, South Philly — I was raised better, but I am weak.)

But at the same time, the old-school Philly corner store is an institution. And as Wawas continue to pop up and Rite Aids carry more groceries than Advil, it seems to be an endangered institution.

Growing up in Fox Chase, we were lucky to have Al’s, a true corner store at Hoffnagle and Ridgeway complete with a mini arcade. Al sold everything from milk to Stove Top to birthday candles, and if he didn’t have Scotch tape in stock, he’d let you borrow his roll to wrap Christmas presents. Although Al passed away years ago, I assume his spirit lives on in the corner’s new store, Chubby’s, a beloved deli with a sign that would only be considered neighborly in the Northeast.

There was a Wawa within reasonable walking distance to Cardinal Dougherty, but there was little point in going. A corner store that shall not be named — let’s just call it the Best Corner Store in Olney — sold cigarettes and blunts to anyone and everyone, Catholic high school uniform or no Catholic high school uniform, as well as an impressive selection of off-brand Doritos. Some days, depending on who was working the counter, you could even get your eyebrows waxed.

Working in Center City, I spent nearly every lunch break hunting exotic gummy candies from dodgy bodegas, a bad habit picked up from a former coworker. My office is in the Navy Yard these days, where the closest thing to a mom-and-pop is a CVS — which, yes, technically sells peach rings, but they’re always the same peach rings, they never come with comics, and the clearly marked expiration dates take all the adventure out of it.

While I have yet to find my go-to corner store in Whitman, I’ll never forget Wiccaco Market, one of my favorite parts about living in Queen Village. Finding something they didn’t carry became almost a game. Organic lemons? Of course. Strawberry Jello? Check. Dog food for allergy-prone shih tzus? Aisle two. Emergency prayer candles for a possibly haunted apartment? Take your pick of saints, and don’t forget a bundle of sage.

This is a big city, so yes, of course there’s room for both the Wawas and the Wiccacos. The day Philly can’t handle another hoagie is the day I start looking for a new place to call home. But I can’t help but worry that Al’s — with its pinball machines and freebie Scotch tape and ice cream sandwich credit system, of which I took full advantage — will soon be my generation’s version of the milk man.

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