Where friendliness is in store

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Old-time neighborhoodtraditions blend with modern convenience in small community markets scattered around the Valley.

They attract regular customers who come in for coffee, conversation and a daily helping of friendliness.

Though the days of gathering around a cast-iron stove or pickle barrel in the local general store to socialize are all but gone, catching up on local news, politics or gossip remains a constant.

"We have a bunch of older guys come in every morning for coffee. They start coming in at about 7," said Jim Joseph who owns the Dixie Grocery with his wife, Kim. "We have a little table in the back with chairs around it."

It's the only such business in Dixie, on the highway between Walla Walla and Waitsburg.

"We carry a little bit of everything," Jim Joseph said.

"We also offer the community a place to meet - ‘I'll meet you at the Dixie Grocery.' Everybody knows where that is. We have the post office here. I hold packages for people until they can drive down. I give directions to people who stop. They're usually looking for Tom Lamb's Hummingbird House."

Bill and Loretta Singer's Chevron station and convenience store in the heart of downtown Walla Walla sees a steady flow of locals, laborers, business people, tourists and folks just passing through.

They have their "regulars," too, who come in for coffee every morning, stop and chat with the Singers and catch up on news about each other. Some stop in for breakfast and gather at the two tables in the back.

"We treat everybody the same," Loretta Singer said. "It's just like family; we want them to feel welcome."

At its Second Avenue and Rose Street location since 1987, Singer's used to have a mechanic's garage before building the convenience store in 2005.

"Service stations are a dying breed," Bill Singer said. Because of changes in the industry, extended warranties and cars with very sophisticated computers, it was simply no longer cost effective to have the equipment necessary to service all makes of cars. They decided the convenience store was the way to go.

Bobby Smith, an auctioneer, said he's been coming to Singer's for years.

"I could call this my branch office," he said. "I come in every morning for coffee and a snack. Then I usually come back for lunch. I've met a lot of nice people in here. I like it because of the service and the food. It's just customer service ... It's one-on-one, like you're the only person in the store."

Being friendly is important, but so is keeping an eye on the business end of things. And that means being more competitive with the larger grocery chains.

"When convenience stores first started, things were more expensive but it's not that way any more," Loretta Singer said.

"And the cigarettes and beer are cheaper," her husband added.

In a transient society, community markets and convenience stores recognize that a lot of people are in a hurry and on the move.

"There's a lot more ‘road food,'" he said. "The snacks help keep them awake."

John and Rosalie Lammers have owned the West End Market at 703 Wallula Ave. for 12 years. People often come in, have coffee and talk with Lammers and other customers.

"We catch up on the latest gossip," John Lammers said.

They offer tables for people to sit down and drink their coffee or have a snack. Hot dogs, corn dogs, deli items and burritos work for lunches and some breakfasts, too.

"We have those items you may have forgotten at the big grocery store, the fill-ins - milk for example."

But competing with the large grocery chains is tough.

"They have more buying power than we do," Lammers said. "We set a margin that we can live with and go from there."

He said prices have to be reasonable, or you won't get anywhere. "If you price milk at $5 a gallon you aren't going to sell any."

To Jim Joseph, who retired after 37 years with General Telephone and Verizon, owning the Dixie Grocery is an ideal job.

"I've been practicing for this job all my life," he said. "My wife says I'm a BS'er. I want to keep busy and interact with people. I'm here six days a week, 13 hours a day. It's not really work ... I really enjoy it. It's the best job I've ever had. There are really good people here, hard-working country folks."

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