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Lox, Stock and Pickle Barrel Go as Old Market Closes

August 01, 2004|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Over the decades, Pioneer Super Market spoiled the people of Echo Park.

Its bargain-priced produce section stocked 20 kinds of peppers. Hand-painted signs announced the sale items. On the shelves, shoppers found tube socks, Virgin Mary candles, pick-up sticks and bulk pinto beans. The neighborhood grew up with the clerks and the checkers, who started as teens and reached middle age in the well-worn aisles.

When chain supermarkets edged into the area, Pioneer regulars remained loyal..

But tonight at 9, Pioneer will close early -- and for good. Walgreens has leased the building from the market's longtime owner, Leonard Leum, who said the store was done in by soaring workers' compensation insurance costs.

"I'm crying. I cry. Everybody's crying," said Juanita Morales, 69, a Pioneer customer for nearly 40 years, as she stood in the parking lot this week, clutching a store shopping bag, with its old-time covered-wagon logo and slogan, "Courteous Service and Low Prices Too."

"Everything you want, you find here," she said. "Now where do I go?"

Leum, 78, said he feels terrible about closing, especially for his veteran staff -- for whom he's trying to find new jobs. But staying open was no longer an option, he said. This year, Pioneer paid $240,000 in workers' comp insurance, quadruple the cost of the same coverage five years ago. The big chains self-insure, he said, but "the cost of doing business with just one store is getting horrific."

Walgreens will fill some of the space, and sublease the rest to an unnamed retailer. Some residents are angry, saying the site should have remained a supermarket. But while supermarket chains did approach Leum, they wanted to buy the property and he refused to sell, he said. He wants the spot that provided for him for so long to keep providing for his children and their children.

The new drugstore will be the latest of more than 4,400 in the Walgreens chain. The old eclectic store for an eclectic neighborhood will disappear.

The grocery store, which first opened in the early 1930s, doesn't look like today's chain supermarkets. It's decorated with hokey cardboard cut-outs of small-town shop fronts, barrels of pickles and wheels of cheese. The Western theme carries through in the Meat Corral, Frontier Liquor, Prairie Produce.

Leum started at Pioneer in 1947, after serving in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II. He met his future wife there. Like him, she was working in the deli. When the original owners died, Leum managed the store for their heirs. In 1965, he bought it. Over the years, he opened -- and then closed -- three other branches. For more than half a century, Pioneer has been his life.

"I didn't want to let it go," he said.

So two years ago, he stopped paying himself a salary. His 60 workers, who are unionized, voted for voluntary pay cuts and slashed their paid vacation time. It wasn't enough.

Leum is a tall, lanky man, with whisked-back, snow-white hair and a mustache to match. He has soft, kind eyes and an old-time elegance. He looks and sounds more than a little like Jimmy Stewart.

"There's a lot of history in this old joint," he said the other day, as he stood at the receptionist's desk above the store, near a heavy metal manual typewriter and ancient gray filing cabinets. Behind him, taking up much of the wall, was a photograph of the building he first worked in -- a two-story brick former apartment building, with a spinning top above its bright red sign. The neon cars that skittered across the sign, pointing customers to the parking area, now live downtown in the Museum of Neon Art.

Today's building, which he opened in 1984, is set back from Sunset Boulevard, behind a large parking area. The old one, deemed unsafe after the Sylmar earthquake, was on the sidewalk, at Sunset and Echo Park Avenue.

Mike Leum, 42, who has run Pioneer with his father, glanced at his watch when Leonard Leum set off down memory lane. But the elder Leum, like his store, has a small-town, unrushed manner. He likes telling about the days when members of the Angelus Temple haunted the store to protest its sale of liquor, when Hollywood Boulevard was hopping and the store stayed open all night to serve the workers getting off their shifts at the restaurants and nightclubs, when bit players like Kid Chissell and Iron Eyes Cody would pop in after leaving the studios at 2 a.m.

The aisles of the old store were narrow and cramped. Stock was stored in the former apartments above, which still had their flowery wallpaper.

For nearly 60 years, Leum ordered the stock to fill his shelves. It changed with the neighborhood. When Jews from Boyle Heights moved in, he got them matzoh meal and kasha. "Now, I can't give the matzoh away," he said. In today's Echo Park, the pan dulce, tortillas and habaneros have been big sellers, sharing shelf space with six brands of soy sauce, six types of bananas and glass jars of kimchi.

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