Friday, September 2, 2005

Williams Market employees, shoppers ponder next move

Closure leaves Ketchum with only one grocery store

Express Staff Writer

Chris Williams, president of Williams Market, is pondering his next move. Photo by David N. Seelig

A sign on the front window of Williams Market announces more than a discount on merchandise in the Ketchum grocery store.

The markdowns are the beginning of the end for the family-owned business that has helped feed residents, visitors and employees for the past 12 years.

The Williams family revealed this week that they are closing up shop at the end of September.

"It was a hard decision," said Chris Williams, store owner and president. "There's some sadness. We had a lot of loyal customers and we did a lot of good business here."

The store's roots lie in some of Ketchum's earliest history.

In 1925, brothers Oscar and Albert Griffith opened a food and outfitting operation in a building that now houses Iconoclast Books on Main Street. The brothers' father was a miner who had explored the area as early as 1879, according to Wendolyn Holland's "Sun Valley, an Extraordinary History."

In 1937, the Griffith family sold the store to Olie Glenn, said Community Library Regional History librarian Chris Millspaugh.

The Glenn family named the grocery the Golden Rule. The family opened the modern store on Main Street in 1981. Thereafter, the business was leased to Safeway, Farmer Jack, then Perron's Market.

Williams has leased the space on Main Street from an out-of-town owner and isn't sure what will be next for the site. The land is zoned commercial and could accommodate any number of businesses.

In reflecting on his years in business, Williams said things went well until September 2001, when the economy started to slow after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then, he said, the trend of working-class families moving to points south strengthened and in Hailey new competition moved in.

"I think that the most obvious thing that happened in our business was a decrease in evening business and weekend business," he said. "For people residing in the South Valley, there seems to be less incentive to come to the North Valley to do their shopping and be entertained."

Surging real estate prices in and around Ketchum seem to be driving young residents south, he said, and have resulted in "some loss of vibrancy for older, conventional businesses."

A loss of hotel rooms in the downtown core and the construction downtown of high-end condominiums that often sit empty haven't helped either, he noted. "Price-conscious" tourists seem to be on the decline.

What will happen to Williams' 25-plus employees is uncertain, Williams said. Some might leave town while others plan to find new jobs.

Grocery Manager Dave Moore, of Bellevue, said he'll stick around until the last day. But he's already starting to think about his next move.

"I'll probably try to find another job, probably in grocery or other retail," he said. "(Chris) has been a great employer so I told him I'd stick it out the rest of the month."

Moore moved to the Wood River Valley from Seattle eight years ago and has been employed at Williams Market since then.

He found out Monday about the store's closing. But with 30 years in the grocery retail business, he said he could see changes in Ketchum and suspected that those changes would not bode well for some businesses.

"I've been in retail a long time," he said. "I know what it takes to run one of these stores. I know the last couple of years, the dynamics of the North Valley have changed. A lot of residents have moved out of the area or south."

Katie Goodwin, a four-year employee who works in the meat department, said she would still make the drive up from her Shoshone home because the wages in Ketchum are good.

"It's still worth it," she said.

Goodwin said her job search would stretch from Sun Valley to Twin Falls, and it could lead her to a new career at a bank or another retail venue.

But her time with Williams Market was a good experience, she said.

"Chris was a good boss," she said. "Plus, it's really sad for Ketchum to have one grocery store."

Frequent customer Jim Tallackson, who was shopping Wednesday without his wife, Shirley, said their family will sorely miss Williams Market.

"My wife likes it here," Tallackson said. "She likes the meat department. We know the Williamses, and she finds it more convenient. She's going to be really disappointed. I am, too."

Moore suspects that the Tallacksons won't be alone in their disappointment.

"It's not going to be a good thing," Moore said. "A lot of people don't feel comfortable with one store."

Moore said people complain about high prices at other grocery stores, but he says costs are high because it's more expensive to do business here.

"It's just the cost of business in a resort town," he said. "If we could have reduced the rent factor we might have been able to stay in business another few years."

Williams said he believes the only other grocery store in town, Atkinsons' Market, will benefit from the closure of Williams but will face a crunch over certain holiday weekends, when thousands of people descend upon Ketchum.

As employees begin to hunt for new sources of income, their last few weeks at Williams Market will be bittersweet.

"Losing your job, you don't feel comfortable with it. (But) morale of the crew is good," Moore said. "Most of us have accepted the fact."

As for Williams, 40, he said he plans to take some time off and "think about" his life.

(Express assistant editor Gregory Foley contributed to this report.)

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