The Dorset Avenue Wawa: Good luck navigating that parking lot, but it was an institution, so when rumors of its impending closure began trickling out on social media a month or so ago, cold fear ran with them.
And those fears were confirmed earlier this week when a sign was taped to the front door. At midnight on September 28, the store would be closing. Wednesday would be the last waltz for the Big Goose in Ventnor Heights.
Those of us who are old, or old-fashioned, or committed to academic notions of the mom-and-pop ideal, may fail to appreciate the hold a chain convenience store can have on the hearts of the faithful. They’re supposed to be indistinguishable. But people develop their attachments—to the people who work there, the people who shop there, hold the door, become part of their lives as we make it part of our daily routine. I don’t know if this is a triumph of the human spirit or of corporate branding, but on Wednesday, people wept for the closing of a Wawa—their Wawa—even though there are two others within three miles and probably another twenty offshore.
It was, by Wawa standards, an old Wawa, a neighborhood Wawa. There were seven parking spots, meaning a lot of foot traffic.
Before there was Wawa there was Dorset Market, owned by the Schallus family, on the same spot. Mike Einwechter, who runs Ventnor Coffee, just up the street, says his grandfather built the meat market in 1948 and his family ran it when the street contained a skating rink, the shop and not much else.
“I used to go in there and steal stuff and get hit with a wooden spoon,” he said.
His family sold in 1987.
For the record, Wawa corporate says they served Ventnor Heights for 33 years, putting the deal closer to 1984, but either way there had probably been a convenience store at the corner of Dorset and Calvert for nearly 70 years. Kids stopped on their way to the baseball fields or football practice, congregated by the trashcan or the steps. “This was their little spot,” one of the neighborhood parents said.
On Wednesday morning, Danny Mannino, who has been coming here for coffee for 12 years, stood outside in a blue Speedo teeshirt, holding a 16oz. Wawa travel mug—you get a discount if you BYO—and enjoying the remnants of Hurricane Maria. A crew of maintenance workers loitered under the no loitering sign. And Jill Priore, a bartender at Harrah’s, was just learning the news. (“Devastated,” she said. “Quote me on that.”)
Karen Sullivan, the longest-tenured member of the Dorset Avenue staff, came outside on her break, to chat with Danny, who had recently stopped dyeing his hair, which had been restored to its natural state, a distinguished gray.
“I got tired of doing touch-ups,” he said. “They say it makes it look thicker too.”
“I worked here 20 years,” Karen said. “I started when I was 35. I’ll be 55 in two weeks.”
Another regular walked by.
“Sorry for interrupting. They just told me it’s the last day here. Is it true?” he said.
Karen told him it was.
“I wish you best of luck.”
“You come see me at Ventnor Avenue,” Karen told him.
“I will be there.”
“You better. Alright baby.”
“What are you going to do?” someone asked Danny.
“I don’t know. I’m going to sit down on the beach and just cry a little bit.”
“No. He’s going to come over to Ventnor Avenue and see me,” Karen said.
“There’s Mike. Say ‘hi’ to Mike.”
Mike walked by, listening to his radio.
A white S.U.V. pulled into the parking lot, even though there were no spaces. It sat there a while until one opened up. Then Philip DeFabio got out. He is a Korean War vet (’52) and comes here every day to buy the Press of Atlantic City.
He chatted with Danny.
“I can’t figure this place out,” Philip said. “It’s the last place I would have thought would close. They’re always busy as far as I’m concerned. Every time I come here. Always, always. But what I did hear is that it’s too small.”
“Now they’re going into these massive places—gas stations,” Danny said.
“This place will open up again, I believe,” Philip said.
Inside were copies of a letter, signed by Wawa’s director of store operations Marian Weiser, that called the closure “bittersweet” and noted “the realities of our business in 2017 no longer support this location.”
The staff had hung a makeshift sign above the registers. “Thank you to our loyal customers,” it said. “We will miss you. TEAM 434.”
The workers were leery of talking to the press, but if you lurked around you picked up that Ray is being transferred to Margate. Tyler’s going to Galloway. Emilio’s going to EHT.
All day Wednesday there was free coffee, and a cake sent by corporate. The shelves emptied. The donuts disappeared, never to return. By nighttime, the demographics had shifted but the flow of customers never stopped. Kids came by, singly and in pairs, to say farewell to their beloved Goose.
Around 9:30, Doug Biagi, whose dad is the chief of police, stopped in for his usual: Swedish fish and coffee. Another guy—who’d done Karate with Doug as a kid—bought a dragonfruit-flavored vitamin water.
“All they have is diet now, so I was forced to get this,” he said. “Like everything’s just diet, so…”
Doug had got the last of the mocha-mint coffee.
Christine Sagnis came by.
“What the hell! This is awful!” she said.
Her usual was dark hazelnut coffee, blended with mocha, a dash of hot chocolate, low-fat cappuccino something or other, and creamer with two splendas. Also a jalapeno and cheddar pretzel.
It turned out she’d taken the photo of the sign and posted it to Facebook earlier in the week.
She and Doug spent about an hour in the lot, outside Wawa, reminiscing.
Christine watched the parade of cars, not un-judgingly.
“A hundred near misses in this parking lot every day,” she said.
The flow never relented.
“Look at this – and they’re closing. Why, because they can’t cook any chili dogs in here or something?”