Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The inconvenient truth was that my neighborhood convenience store abruptly closed. Its littered vacant space lingered for months as a stunning indicator that Arlington is by no means recession-proof.

Now, 18 months later, the 7-11 that for decades stayed lit for me a comfy walking-distance up residential Sycamore Street is preparing to re-open.

Not capitalism at its most efficient-but hey, we’ll take it.

In truth, the store didn’t close; it moved to greener pastures, to prime real estate at the Exxon-Mobil at Lee Highway and Washington Blvd. There it displaced a long-standing “On the Run” market and left a hole in the customer base of Williamsburg Shopping Center.

The impact on merchants and customers was like a broom hitting a beehive. Jin’s Cleaners and Tailoring and Garden City Florist both told me their earnings were dented by the decline in traffic and the specter of the empty storefront. (The florist eventually relocated, his shop’s darkness combining grimly with the long-empty below-ground site that used to be Action Music.)

Habitual patrons were no longer able to grab that last-minute carton of milk or tonic water, or indulge in a nostalgic Slurpee. And all we knew of the site’s future was based on rumors.

Some merchants were able to adjust. The CVS across the intersection altered its hours to meet the new early-morning demand. Deli Italiano erected a sign advertising knock-off “Icees.” And the mom-and-pop Backyard Barbecue said their feelings were mixed; the demise of 7-11 had freed up parking slots.

The real estate company placed “for lease” signs conspicuously displaying its phone number. But as months ticked by with no takers, all they generated was a temporary holiday lease for a do-it-yourself pottery store.

Here’s what bugged me: Why did a popular 7-11 felt feel the need to move a few blocks across teeming Lee Highway for what I suspect was a marginal improvement in profits?

I asked Margaret Chabris, spokeswoman for 7-11’s national office in Dallas, how such calculations are made. I told her how unevenly the 7-11’s are distributed in our area. On Lee Highway alone, I count four within about a mile between Cherrydale and George Mason Drive.

Twenty-four 7-11’s operate in Arlington, she said. “The locations and how far apart stores are from each other is decided using many factors like traffic patterns, population density and traffic drivers–tourist spots, residential dwellings, amount of traffic.” Decisions are made nationally, not by local franchises. “We do want the franchisees to be successful,” she said, “because we share in the gross profit of stores, not taking a percentage of sales like most franchisors do.”

Henry Renaud, president of Renaud Consulting, told me his real estate firm finally succeeded here where another had failed by “bridging the gap” with 7-11 on terms of its lease. It’s rare for a 7-11 to leave physically and then return, he said. This one had been here for 40-50 years, since it was a High’s. But the good news, he added, is that renovations will produce a state-of-the-art new store.

7-11 may have a fine national strategy, but it sends ripples around localities, affecting livelihoods as well as routines beyond mere convenience.

I never thought I’d be caught recalling the old radio jingle, “Oh thank heaven for 7-11.”

But welcome back, 7-11. Back to where you once belonged.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com