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As the original store gets a new lease on life, we look back at an era when supermarkets really were superby Page Leggett on April 20, 2021
Let’s celebrate the small Park-N-Shop chain of stores and the man who created them.
The original location, vacant for years, will soon get a new life. Red Hill Ventures and the Roby Family of Companies are redeveloping the old Park-N-Shop, a 2.4-acre site at 3512 Wilkinson Blvd., into about 30,000 square feet of office space. Leasing is underway now.
And – here’s something we don’t see enough of in Charlotte – the development team is honoring the existing structure.
“We would contend that sometimes what you don’t do (to a building or piece of architecture) is as important as what you do,” said Tim O’Brien, studio manager for LaBella Associates, the team managing architecture and engineering on the project.
“In this case, we sought to retain and refresh the building’s original charm. We’re highlighting the existing structure, and the new elements we’re introducing are meant to complement – rather than compete with – what’s there.”
Once Upon a Time, Parking Lots Were a New Concept
The name Park-N-Shop sounds funny today. But driving to the grocery store was a novelty in the 1950s.
“The name let you know you were coming to one of these big, new, modern supermarkets and not walking down to the end of your street to a little neighborhood shop,” said Tom Hanchett, Ph.D., a historian and keeper of the History South website.
“Today, ironically, we’re very nostalgic for that notion of being able to walk to a local shopkeeper,” Hanchett continued. “But in the years after World War II, the brave new frontier was to get in your Country Squire station wagon and drive to one of these new developments with acres of parking. In the mid-1950s, we became a nation on wheels.”
Charles Reid built his store to serve Charlotte’s suddenly very mobile housewives. (And it was almost exclusively women who did the shopping, recalled his son, Neal Reid.)
Reid – no relation to the family that started Reid’s Fine Foods – opened his first Charlotte grocery store in 1950 and grew it, with help from his wife and four children, into a small chain.
What jobs did the Reid siblings do? Everything.
“Whatever Dad couldn’t get anybody else to do,” said Neal, who unloaded trucks as a junior high schooler.
By the time he was at East Lincolnton High, Neal saw a benefit to his labor. Unloading watermelons, which arrived stacked like firewood, helped him get in shape for football.
The accidental grocer
Charles Reid was a child of the Great Depression and, with only a seventh-grade education, he left Charlotte for work in Wilmington, N.C. when he was a teenager, Neal said. “World War II was ramping up, and Wilmington was a booming town with a shipyard.”
“In 1940, Dad opened a sandwich route in Wilmington for Carolina Foods, a company that’s still here, still owned by the Scarborough family and still on S. Tryon St.,” Neal said. (Carolina Foods bakes the honey buns that make South End smell so sweet.)
The young Charles Reid saw a golden opportunity for a side hustle. He cut the side out of a tool shed and turned it into a roadside stand. He’d set up before work and again during lunch breaks, feed the crowds of shipyard workers and then return to his “day job.”
Eventually, he opened a brick-and-mortar grocery store in Wilmington, but returned to his hometown before the work in that port city dried up.
By that point – 1946 – the oldest Reid child had been born, and the family bought their first house. “Dad had no intention of going back into the grocery business,” Neal said. “But then a store on Wilkinson Blvd. was for sale. He bought it. He had to sell his car and their house to do it. So, he built a little apartment in the back of the store.”
The store was ideally located. “I-85 hadn’t been built yet,” Neal remembered. “Highway 74/Wilkinson was the only way into Charlotte.” All roads – or in this case, the one road – led straight to Park-N-Shop.
“Dad kept remodeling,” Reid recalled. “He would buy adjacent space – like the little shoe shop next door – and knock walls down. He kept expanding until eventually, he owned the whole strip.”
In 1950, Reid got a loan to build out the space professionally. “He built over the top of the original,” Reid said. “It looked like a real supermarket.”
Flashing forward, the Park-N-Shop building will continue to look like a grocery store in its new incarnation, too. Architects are making necessary adjustments to make it work for tenants, but the soul of the store is still unmistakable.
“For a modern workplace, daylight is critical,” O’Brien said. “We did depart from the original design by introducing daylight deep into the space, the center of which is common area shared by all tenants.”
The prestige of a big parking lot
Hanchett provided context via a story he wrote for the Charlotte Museum of History’s Mad About Modern 2020 tour guidebook for the 2020 tour: “Supermarkets vied to attract suburbanites with big stores and bigger parking lots. Local W.T. Harris merged with a Mooresville storekeeper in … 1959 to create the enduring regional chain Harris-Teeter. You could find Harris-Teeter at Park Road Shopping Center … and at Charlottetown Mall. The competing Park’N’Shop put parking right in its store name.”
Colonial and Big Star were Charlotte’s other chain grocery stores of the day.
“But there was still room for a scrappy, small retailer to build something that could grow, and the Reid family are great examples of that,” Hanchett said. “They started with one small store … and then expanded.”
Nothing left but apples
By 1956, the Reids had moved out of the back of the store and into a house two miles away on Remount Rd. The store wasn’t in the city limits and was served by a volunteer fire department. Charles Reid was the fire chief.
When he got a call after midnight one night, he knew it was about a fire. He didn’t know it was at his store. The fire had been put out by the time he got there, but one truckload of apples was all that remained.
WBTV reported on the disaster, Neal recalled. And people rushed to the scene. “Dad saw all those people and said, ‘Unload those apples,’” Neal said. “He never missed a day at work. Not even after a total loss.”
Reid collected just enough insurance money to pay off the bank loan, his son said. There was never any question that he would rebuild. By the late 1970s, 10 Park-N-Shop stores dotted the region from Denver to Gastonia. They were places where the community gathered and even some legends were made.
The Wilkinson location welcomed the famous conjoined twins and vaudeville stars, Violet and Daisy Hilton, as employees after they were stranded in Charlotte by their agent in the early 60s.
Rising from the ashes
Down, but not out, Reid continued to operate Park-N-Shop out of a crude, un-airconditioned structure they built with friends and neighbors. This continued for nearly two years, while he took the opportunity to create a building that was more fire resistant and more architecturally distinctive. To do that, he worked with Charles Morrison Grier.
Grier, Hanchett said, “was a proponent of the international style of architecture that had very little ornament and instead used the structure of a building to give it beauty. You see the beams. It’s a language of architecture that then seemed so progressive – structurally honest was a term architects use.”
A Charlotte native and Clemson grad, Grier created a new and distinctive look for the store, which became a template for future stores. Much like the old Pizza Huts, you could recognize a Park-N-Shop a mile away.
It worked then. It works now.
That term still applies to the 2021 renovations, too. “We’re primarily acting as stewards of the original design – kind of mid-century preservationists,” O’Brien said. “This is because what is there, still works. Had the space been highly compartmentalized or the structure less elegant and honest, we might have approached it differently. We share Mr. Grier’s view that expressing the structural honestly is inherently pleasing.”
Another noteworthy Grier building is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools education center, featured in the Nov. 1970 Architectural Record.
The development team from Labella recognized how special the architecture was and is keeping much of it intact. O’Brien likes the nostalgia factor.
“I like the memories it evokes,” he said. “Going to the grocery store with my father on a Saturday morning – it’s a visceral sort of thing. Charlotte has a precious handful of such places, and we felt compelled to celebrate it rather than cover it up.”
In fact, the architecture and history are key selling features. “The building has a cool vibe, a history – a landmark, really – and is actually really well set up for the demands of the modern workplace,” he continued. “Several spaces have outdoor patio amenities, and all tenants share in centrally located common area.”
The end of an era.
Rebuilding the Wilkinson Road location was the start of something special. From there, the Reid family opened new Park-N- Shops across Charlotte, sometimes building from scratch, other times buying existing stores. They experimented with adding on-site bakeries and restaurants, not unlike what you see in modern grocery stores.
But, stretching the business from one location to many took its toll. And, so did time.
When the Reid matriarch, LaRue Reid, was diagnosed with cancer, life took a turn for the family and the business. She had always been Charles’ partner in life and in business. For a year-and-a-half, she underwent treatment, and Charles was her caregiver.
She died on New Year’s Day 1979. Not long after, Charles was visiting his 10th location – the one in Gastonia – and noticed an oozing, rotten watermelon displayed for sale. Something broke.
“Dad was embarrassed,” Neal said. “He asked the produce manager if he’d submitted his order for the weekend. He had not. Dad said, ‘Then, don’t. I’m closing.’” It was the first of many to come and the end of an era.
“It’s amazing how fast something can go downhill,” Neal said.
Rising from the ashes one more time
The rise and fall of Park-N-Shop is a little-known part of Charlotte history. But the original building shouldn’t be transformed without sharing the story of how a determined young grocer contributed to a burgeoning industry with an old-fashioned work ethic and a new-fangled design.
Reid was a pioneer in his day. And it’s fitting that Red Hill Ventures and LaBella Associates are now the trustees of what he built. They’re pioneers, too.
“This is a catalyst project for more thoughtful development on the west side,” O’Brien said. “We were fortunate our clients saw the potential.”
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The Roby Family of Companies: WEBSITE
Featured Image via LaBella Associates