Vacant Baker Brothers building sparks memories
By Aaron James
As an architect, I spent 25 years creating built environments all over this half of the country, but the other day I was slapped with a stark reminder that community has little to do with buildings and everything to do with people.
Thirty years ago, the building at the southwest corner of Nelson and Barksdale was bustling with people. At the time, I did not know our neighborhood had a name, but I knew that most of those people lived in Cooper-Young.
I started working at Baker Brothers when I was 16, first as a sack boy, eventually working my way up to stocker and then checker. I honestly cannot recall if groceries had bar codes back then, because we were too busy punching prices into our honest-to-God cash registers to notice. Every night Mr. Baker (who eventually became like a surrogate grandfather figure to me), would listen to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on WKNO while counting the till at his checkout counter.
My fondest memories of those years revolve around the customers, from the lady who lived right behind the store on Oliver (who made her own mayonnaise and would insist on my sampling her latest batch whenever I made a delivery), to the family who lived the next block up on Evelyn, who always had the greatest display of Christmas lights you’d ever seen.
And then there was this hip cat, “Red,” who lived across the street, who I once caught trying to sneak a steak out of the store in his pants. Of course all I did was tell him to put it back, and never said anything to Mr. Baker.
And then there were the milestones. Like I can remember the first time ground beef topped a dollar a pound, you’d have thought there were going to be riots in the streets. (We had an actual, functioning butcher shop in the back of the store. I can remember in the corner of the walk-in cooler there was a 55-gallon drum where the butcher would toss meat scraps to send to the bologna and hot dog plant, but I digress.)
And my step mother swore she’d quit smoking once cigarettes topped 50 cents a pack (which unfortunately didn’t happen.) And history would go on to record that I had my very first yard sale on the sidewalk right out in front of the store.
But there were dark times too. You see, I was the person who discovered Mr. Baker bloodied and disoriented, trying to call the police from the payphone just inside the front door. As it happened, one guy hid in the back of the store until after closing and then let two more guys in through the trap door in the roof of the stock room. Being the cowards they were, they snuck up behind Mr. Baker while he was counting and busted him over the head with the steel handle off an old barber’s chair.
It was the first time I ever saw that much blood in my life, much less helped to mop it up. I would later learn that one of the cowards was my best friend.
And that was, for all intents and purposes, the end of Baker Brothers — the last full-service neighborhood market in Cooper-Young. It struggled on in one form or another for a few years, but it was never the same. In the late ’90s, during a brief stint of once again living in the house I grew up in, I attended a CYCA meeting and was astonished to learn that the site had devolved into the ubiquitous beer and cigarette quickie-mart that is the bane of so many inner-city neighborhoods.
Of course it’s been closed now for a couple of years. The aforementioned slap came just the other day when I actually got to tour the building. Under the guise of representing an anonymous party potentially interested in purchasing the property, I called the Realtor to gain access.
I was beyond shocked. The building itself is more of a liability now than anything. The entire interior has to be completely gutted and rebuilt from scratch. Eighty percent of the roof has to be rebuilt — and that’s just the beginning.
While I firmly believe that CY would benefit tremendously if it could be brought back as a neighborhood market (or perhaps half market and half something else of similar benefit), I also know it would take a tremendous amount of work — and capital.
But, in honor of what once was and in hopes of what could be, I’ll toss my two cents worth of professional expertise into the pot to get the ball rolling.
– James is an architect and Cooper-Young resident.