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Community Commerce

Grocer’s Goal: Revive Neighborhood Shopping

Bill Coats grew up in west central Columbia and remembers, in the early 1960s, an old corner store at the junction of Sexton Road and McBaine Avenue. He didn’t shop there often because his parents thought it was safer for the kids to walk from their home on the south side of Worley Street to another market a few blocks south to avoid crossing the busy street.

Although those stores are long gone, Coats, now 58, has his own community market at McBaine and Sexton. Unitee Market was his chance to run his first business and fill the neighborhood’s need for a store within reasonable walking distance.

“It’s something that I think the neighborhood has needed for a while,” said Vickie Freelon, Coats’ business partner. “There are a lot of old people who don’t have cars and find this market very convenient.”

The sense of community is where Unitee market gets its name, explains Bill Coats. "The economy is so bad, so we gotta lean on each other. That's what makes the world go round is unity. It's about working together and community."

Inside the store, behind the front picture window, there’s a round wooden table and wire-backed chairs where regulars play dominoes and read newspapers. A portable heater in the corner adds warmth as friends, neighbors and customers come and go. Behind the table is an assortment of Kwanzaa, Christmas and “Get Well” cards. A freezer full of ice cream delineates the front of the narrow store from the rest of the goods.

“A lot of times people come in and have a story to tell,” Coats said. “They don’t stay long, just come in to tell their stories.”

Coats believes the story about his fledgling store can serve as an example for neighbors who hope to start their own businesses and thereby provide some economic stability in the low-income community. This sentiment is reflected in the market’s name, Unitee.

“We look at it as a piece of the whole community,” Coats said. “I feel that this is a start for people to feel more support for their neighbors, and once they see it can work, that we keep the doors open, they’ll see that a small business can survive.”

Running the market is also a way to keep Coats’ family close. And, like any family, each of the businesses at 301 Sexton relies on the others for support.

Unitee Market owner Vicki Freelon sweeps the floors at the end of the night. She, Mike Hill, Dennis and Bill Coats started the market two years ago as a a joint effort in meeting the local community's needs.

Coats’ nephew Mike Hill runs the Unitee Barber Salon next door, which shares the sidewalk and a roof with Unitee Market. Coats co-owns the building, and Freelon owns the market and runs Beauty Express Floral Boutique in a space on the side of the building. Dennis Coats, Bill Coats’ younger brother, mans the register each day at Unitee Market.

“I think it’s important if you can work with family and keep that bond, that love and that trust,” Bill Coats said. “More heads are better than one. Period. So here we work together to make it happen.”

But as any small-business owner will attest, staying in business is tough.

When Unitee Market opened in November 2008, it sold grocery items such as milk, bread and cheese. Too often these food items went unsold and spoiled. The market struggled with demand for basic grocery items. Now it sells few of them and relies instead on sales of standard convenience store items such as lottery tickets, sodas, candy and cigarettes. There’s also a mix of frozen pizzas, pot pies and Banquet-brand frozen meals. Canned soups and vegetables sit on a shelf above charcoal briquettes, motor oil and cat food.

“When all is said and done, no one wants to take a loss,” Dennis Coats said.

The school bus drops off 12-year-old Kayla Wingate at Unitee Market every day. There she hangs out with market staples Dennis and Bill Coats until her mom comes to pick her up. Sometimes she even gets free candy before going on her way.

One item the market refuses to sell is alcohol. Bill Coats said he doesn’t want to create an environment where people only come in to buy beer and hang around; rather, he wants to respect the community and run a store where everyone feels safe. Plus, the building on Sexton used to house Progressive Missionary Baptist Church before it moved down the street to Banks Avenue. It was his mother’s church, so there’s respect due for that, too.

Unitee Market continues to experiment with serving hot food and striking the balance between variety and the reality of what will sell.

Neighbor and patron Benjamin Bowman, left, sits down in Mike Hill's barber chair for his routine haircut. "I like coming here because it's a nice friendly environment, and I know all of the people," Bowman said. "We're a community," Hill adds. "I feel the barbershop is more than just a haircut; it's a place where people have good conversation and connect with each other."

On weekends last summer, Unitee Market served catfish, coleslaw and spaghetti prepared by friends and served on the patio next to the floral shop. It’s something they’ll try again next summer, Coats said, and Unitee will start serving breakfast next year.

For now, a deli case beneath the front register is unlit and empty. The market served deli-style sandwiches but stopped when they started the weekend meals. For now, even the revolving hot dog grill is idle.

The recession, which hit home as the store opened, has tempered business, Coats said. “People aren’t buying much. … It holds its own, the market here. But it’s bad times to open up any business. We are surviving, and, if we can hold on a little longer, I think it’s going to be OK. In the future we can make this grow.”

Paul Sturtz, co-founder of Ragtag Cinema and the City Council’s First Ward representative, said that small businesses such as Unitee Market “make the neighborhood a more livable place,” but he acknowledged the inherent difficulties of running a neighborhood market.

Dennis Coates concentrates on his game of dominoes when he's not manning the register at Unitee Market.

“Any business not located at one of the malls is going to face uphill challenges with traffic… and establishing a customer base,” Sturtz said. “Carrying perishables like food makes it even more of a challenge.”

Currently, Unitee Market does not accept payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called Food Stamps. Coats plans to start accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer food stamp payments in the future, which he predicts will drive more and more neighborhood residents to shop at his market. With a wider assortment of basic grocery items, Unitee will be a better option for residents who currently walk across Business Loop 70 to shop for groceries at Moser’s, Coats said.

But meeting USDA requirements to accept EBT payments means carrying staple foods including grains, dairy, meats and produce — the same items Unitee currently has trouble selling.

The issue of First Ward resident access to grocery stores is not a new one. In October 2006, the Columbia City Council approved plans for a grocery store and apartment complex on land at the southwest corner of Garth Avenue and Sexton Road. But the plan never materialized.

From left, Dennis Coats, Jeffery Stemmons and Tommie Coats-Fredora enjoy one another's company and play dominoes at Unitee Market. Dominoes is a community favorite that gathers friends and neighbors at the local market.

Hill, who’s run his barbershop since 2003, said it helps that the family businesses at 301 Sexton can rely on one another for customers and support to keep going. He said successful small businesses need to be a partnership between the operators and the community: “United we stand; divided we fall.”

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