WOONSOCKET – Yes, watching smoke billowing from the ceiling of the family business can be a frightening thing, but when fire forced Liberty Market to close last month, no one seemed more annoyed than his customers, says Jamil Sheikh.
Whether they were looking for a quart of milk or a can of soup, “A lot of people were telling me it was too far to go someplace else to get things,” says Sheikh.
Located in one of just two census tracts in the state dubbed “food deserts” due to the lack of easily accessible supermarkets, Liberty Market was a mini-oasis for denizens of downtown, many of whom get by without cars.
At last, the convenience store is back in business. The store reopened Monday at 118 Main St., a new location across the street from the site that was damaged by an electrical fire on Dec. 3.
“We’re starting all over again,” says Sheikh’s wife, Sabrina. “We’re looking forward to seeing all our old customers again.”
Sheikh, who was still tending to last-minute details earlier this week – setting up the deli case and installing the computers for the Rhode Island Lottery, for example – says he was actually quite reluctant to move out of the old store at 99 Main St. It had more than a few drawbacks – including a lack of heat – but Sheikh says he had steady customers and he was afraid he’d lose some if he didn’t reopen in a hurry.
“I had regular customers and I was making a living,” he says.
But when push came to shove, city officials wouldn’t grant an occupancy permit for the building, part of the sprawling Commercial Block that occupies all the addresses from 95 to 117 Main St. Sheikh says officials at City Hall told him the landlord needed to address code violations with the electrical and smoke alarm systems before they would allow the commercial space to be reoccupied after the fire.
Despite the fact that other commercial units on the ground floor are affected by code violations, neither city officials nor the landlord, Stamatos Property Management of Jamaica Plain, Mass., was apparently able to come to terms on the problem.
Stamatos bought the building out of foreclosure in 2011 for a reported $300,000 and promised city officials the company would make improvements to the building, yet there’s been little detectable progress at the site, according to Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik.
“They didn’t just make those promises to us, they made them to the people of Woonsocket,” he says. “They came to public meetings and talked about their plans for the Commercial Block.”
Built in 1902, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Place, and city officials consider its preservation vital to maintaining the historic flavor of the city’s traditional downtown.
While the building still has several residential tenants living in studio apartments on the second floor, Liberty Market is the latest commercial tenant on the ground floor to abandon the site. Five of the 11 street-level storefronts are now vacant.
Ultimately, Sheikh credits his customers with persuading him to jump across the street, despite the significant expense and inconvenience of getting the new quarters spruced up and code-compliant.
Many of them, he says, are down-on-their-luck individuals with few family ties.
For them, he says, Liberty Market wasn’t just a convenient place to buy a loaf of bread or carton of milk without getting in a car or on a bus – it was a their social connection to the neighborhood they live in.
There is a need for a place like that on Main Street, says Sheikh, and he’s concluded that it’s his job – or at least one of them – to provide it.
“A lot of these people, they have no family, they’re handicapped, they have no one to talk to,” says Sheikh. “They tell me Liberty Market felt like a home to them.”