Campus Dissolve: The Battle over Sugar's
Given its home in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on the East Coast, Georgetown University has never had much of a chance to develop a typical college retail strip with all-night eateries, bars, bookstores and coffee haunts. Instead, Hoyas have had to share the M Street corridor with neighborhood residents and a singles scene that serves the entire D.C. metro area.
But at the corner of 35th and O, Sugar's Campus Store sits as a gloriously unrenovated reminder of college life of the mid-20th century, a barebones diner that only college kids and people who love their energy and sense of discovery could love.
Now, Sugar's faces the end of a long road, as the owner of the corner storefront proposes to send the shop's longtime owner packing come May. Students and neighbors alike have banded together to try to save the store, though they appear to have no grounds to stop the transaction, other than the slim possibility that public pressure might persuade the landlord to step aside.
Twenty years ago, when Georgetown was still home to more than half a dozen little independent pharmacies, Sugar's was a classic corner store--a soda fountain, drug store and newsstand, as well as a community hangout. The Georgetown drug stores were almost all owned by Jewish merchants who had grown up in Washington--there was Doc Dalinsky's place on Wisconsin Avenue, Marty Levin had Sugar's, and Dumbarton's and Morgan's and Pearson's and MacArthur Drug over near the fabulous MacArthur movie house, also now gone. It became a CVS, adding insult to injury.
Starting in the 80s, most of those old drug stores sold to Korean merchants; the pharmacies were eventually targeted and driven under by CVS. The shops that survive moved into other product lines; Sugar's became a short-order eatery under the Chul Kim and his wife.
The Kims have run Sugar's since 1992 and they own the name of the shop, which has been open on that corner since 1917. But when their lease expires in May, the property owner, Nabeel Audeh, who also owns the nearby Wisemiller's Deli, intends to take back his storefront and convert it into an off-brand Starbucks. There are some in the neighborhood who would welcome a coffee house with long hours, but this is Georgetown and so there are many voices that want to keep things exactly as they are. For decades, many residents have sought to pretend that they live in a sleepy old neighborhood that is neither at the heart of a major metropolis nor smack up against a busy college campus. So these folks like Sugar's early closing time, its strictly neighborhood appeal (no one is traveling from, say, Rockville because they just have to have a Sugar's sandwich), and its unambitious look.
A touching student movement of sorts has developed with the goal of saving the old Sugar's. And the Kims have obtained the pro bono services of a lawyer, John Froemming, who has put together a list of the difficulties in the relationship between the Kims and Audeh that could, if things go against the Kims, morph into legal action. But for now, the battle is taking place at the neighborhood level; the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, after a heated discussion last week, issued a statement of thanks to the Kims for all they've done.
Audeh, meanwhile, is facing some barbed questions from students who have dug into the real estate records and wonder if the landlord had the permits he needed for some work on his own very nice R Street rowhouse in Georgetown.
The Kims have a compelling personal story--Mr. Kim literally walked out of North Korea with his mother after she protested the rise of the communist government there. He was a civil engineer before starting up his own business by buying Sugar's for $250,000 in 1992. Kim still owns the rights to the Sugar's name, which Audeh has proposed to rent for a paltry $1,000 a year.
Of course, there are some who don't see any big deal here. As one D.C. blogger put it, "Sugar's - a crap-tastic deli near Georgetown's campus - is closing. Count me among those happy to see it go."
But there's something comforting about a corner store that's nothing fancy, that has no plush lounge chairs and no self-important names for a cup of coffee. That's probably not nearly enough to save a neighborhood institution, and I'm not sure it should be. Just because we might love a place doesn't give it the right to continue to exist without regard for the forces of the marketplace and the march of time. But it would be nice if they kept the name.
By Marc Fisher |
March 7, 2006; 7:09 AM ET
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