Photo: Steve Martarano

Photo: Steve Martarano

A&A Grocery Closing After 37 Years

Back Commentary Mar 14, 2016 By Steve Martarano

Standing at the base of the Capitol Towers apartment complex, I couldn’t help but notice a sign posted on an outside window last week that simply said, “Goodbye.” I’m sad to note that A&A Grocery, a 37-year presence in downtown Sacramento, will soon be closing its doors.

“Yes, we are retiring and the store will close,” owner Andy Lee, 72, says when I step inside. Lee points to a flyer posted on the window behind the cash register that thanks his customers, reminds folks to get their lottery tickets cashed by Friday, and notes the store will shut its doors for good on March 18 at 6 p.m.

You don’t see many true mom-and-pop businesses any more, but A&A Grocery, wedged between Gino’s Java Juice and Gary’s Capitol Towers Hair Design, truly fits that definition.

Owned since April 1979 by the effacing Andy and Anita Lee (hence the A&A), the couple operated the store all those years without using any outside employees. Long-time patrons remember the early days when Anita would hold the couple’s young son in her arms while working the register.

Anyone who has patronized A&A knows the store has never changed. The inside looks identical to the way it did when it opened, with the wood paneling lining the walls, a large cold case greeting customers as they walk in, and an ice cream freezer taking over the back of the store. It’s still a tight fit to get past the cash register to buy cold medicine or a lottery ticket.

Anita works the mornings, Andy relieves her at noon and closes up at 6 p.m. That’s how it’s always been; that’s how it still works today.

I’ve known the Lees since the beginning for two reasons: When I moved to Sacramento in September 1979, fresh out of college to work at the nearby Sacramento Union newspaper, I moved into an apartment at Capitol Towers, where I lived until 1985. A&A seemed to be the only place nearby I could grab a quick soda, carton of milk or cold medicine, so I frequented it often.

The other reason is that I’ve never really left downtown. Though I now live in the Curtis Park neighborhood, I’ve spent most of my working life in Sacramento — in offices within a couple of blocks of Capitol Towers. In fact, my first studio apartment on N Street looked directly toward the federal building I’m working in currently. I still stop in A&A on occasion to grab a soda or lottery ticket, and the Lees — amazingly — still remember me from when I lived there.

The couple always had a smile and a kind word to say to their customers, but the smile seems a little more wistful these final days.

“I will miss my customers,” Anita says. “They weren’t just customers, but friends.”

They will move from their longtime home in the Pocket to Southern California to be close to their son, now in his 30s, and — for me — a small part of Sacramento history will be gone forever.

Next door neighbor Gary Fender, of Gary’s Capitol Towers Hair Design, is watching the new developments involving A&A with interest. Fender, 73, has owned the classic style barber shop since he was the first business at Capitol Towers in 1964. Fender says he’ll miss the store, referring to the Lees as “a class act.” Despite operating the past two years on a day-to-day lease, Fender says he isn’t planning to leave anytime soon.

Yes, downtown Sacramento is changing in ways nearly impossible to comprehend. Just a few blocks away, the Golden 1 Center, the new home of the Sacramento Kings, will open in October. My old newspaper building on Capitol Mall was torn down years ago and is just a big hole in the ground, waiting to be filled with whatever comes next. Small business operators like A&A Grocery will continue to escape the downtown core as development explodes.

There’ll be a 20-percent off sale at A&A Grocery starting on Monday until it closes for good March 18. Stop in, grab an ice cream bar and say goodbye to the Lees one last time.

As the sign on the window from Andy and Anita Lee says: “We will keep you in our hearts and minds forever.”