BY ROY HARRYMAN
This article originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.
Rejuvenating a historic building is more than a construction project for Dennis Edwards: It’s also a work of the soul.
For a year, Edwards has put thousands of dollars and countless hours into revitalizing his late parents’ grocery store at 81 N. Mill St. in Kansas City, Kan. Original Corner Market is expected to open this month. It won’t be a full-service grocery store, but will offer basics including flour, bread, milk, eggs, prepackaged meats and non-perishable items. In a few months, he plans to open a deli inside.
He said building and running the market offers him a chance to improve the neighborhood and himself.
Edwards, 51, was raised upstairs from the market that his parents ran from 1959-1985. Although life took him away from the Riverview Heights neighborhood, he said his heart never left the community. He’d also promised his father that he’d do his best to re-open the family store.
“It broke my heart to see the neighborhood going down because it was so good,” he said. “I had the best childhood anybody could ever ask for. To see that die, hurt.”
Last February, the real estate businessman began pouring time and resources into his father’s old store with this ideal: “If you really love an area, come back. Don’t think about change, make change. Make it happen.”
Edwards decided to not only open the business, but to restore it to the glory of its past. He shopped the Midwest for antiques that would help recreate the era of the 1921 building. His purchases included a functioning 1942 Coca Cola machine, old sewing equipment, cookware, signs and a hand-crank telephone. He also bought a century-old meat locker and 70-year-old cooler.
“I searched high and low for stuff that only pertains to old grocery stores,” he said. “It’s just kind of a passion.”
Customers will walk on the same oak floor that his father did. Only Edwards has added historic photos and news clippings under a coat of sealant. He has also restored the market’s original candy counters.
Getting to this point took serious work, though it was a labor of love.
Although the building was never completely abandoned (Edwards’ father lived upstairs until his death nearly two years ago), it required a near total overhaul. Before he could start, decades’ worth of family belongings had to be removed. Then Edwards had to tackle structural improvements, plumbing, electrical work, sidewalks and disability access. He did 90 percent of the work himself, often toiling late into the night.
“Ceiling to floor, I’m proud of it,” he said. “I’m not afraid of working.”
Although he wants to offer convenient service, Edwards has more than a business in mind. He said neighbors don’t socialize like they used to do. Bringing a store within walking distance can hopefully get people acquainted and build community spirit.
“This is where strangers become friends,” Edwards said.
He also hopes the store can offer a learning experience and window on the past for children and students.
Those benefits, he hopes, can help atone for his errors.
“Sometimes you come back to correct a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I want to make an investment in the community and in myself. I want a good positive change for the entire community.”
Edwards is also moving back into the second-floor apartment where he grew up, making his return to roots complete. In addition, he’s extending his parents’ business legacy by running the store with his daughter, Erika Hochard. Although his grandchildren are too young to work, their presence marks four generations involved with the business.
For Edwards, the entire endeavor brings back memories of simpler times when he delivered groceries for his dad.
Edwards recalls a neighborhood populated heavily by Croatians, Germans and other Europeans and remembers hearing conversations in foreign tongues. He said the scenario is much the same today, except today’s neighbors are likely to speak Spanish.
“I’ve got great neighbors,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to trade them for anything in the world.”
Those neighbors are investing in rebuilding the area, too.
“Everybody’s doing fix ups,” he said, “more than I’ve ever seen. This is a busy place. It’s a lot busier than you would think.”
Marty Thoennes, executive director of the Central Area Betterment Association, said the business will be a plus to the neighborhood. While residential redevelopment is ongoing, new businesses aren’t as common.
“It’s going to be a bright spot in a difficult area,” Thoennes said. “We encourage these types of things to happen. You don’t see that much money invested in a little place too often.
“It’s gorgeous. You feel like you’re stepping back in time. You walk into the place and feel like you ought to be trading Mickey Mantle cards.”
The proposal for the store initially hit opposition from neighbors who did not want retail zoning in a residential area, said Thoennes. As a compromise, the city approved a special use permit.
Thoennes said the concern was that, if the market failed, a business could move in that clashed with neighborhood values.
Edwards said no one needs to worry about him moving on to something else.
“If you put enough hard work and effort into it, your dream will pay off,” he said. “Real estate is OK, but when it comes to passion – it’s back to the store. I don’t plan on moving from here. I plan to die here.”