Grocer faces question of life or legacy store, family legacy, alive

Al Burbage, owner of Burbage’s grocery, is ready to retire but many of his neighbors don’t want to see the corner grocery shut down. Photo taken Friday, June 5, 2013 at Burbage’s grocery.

Paul Zoeller

It’s just another afternoon at Burbage’s Self-Service Grocery, and the egg salad is moving steady.

Every other person who walks into the Broad Street corner store wants a pint, and Al Burbage knows it as soon as they hit the door.

He should, seeing as how he’s been doing this most of his life.

Burbage, 59, has worked in this grocery store — originally his father’s — for 47 years. Burbage is the last of a dying breed: the shopkeeper who lives above the store.

After all these years, Burbage is ready to retire. He spends all day every day in this building. Sometimes a tank of gas sits in his car more than a month, and he gets a little stir crazy.

But it is hard to walk away with the weight of history on your shoulders.

If he closes the store, it will be the end of a Charleston institution and the legacy of his father, Robert Ackerman Burbage.

“That’s what I battle every day,” Burbage says.

Last month, he thought he had a solution. A local man wanted to buy the store, add a few more tables and serve alcohol — all while still selling groceries and retaining the Burbage name.

But some neighbors protested, and convinced the city to kill the deal through zoning.

A few of them stopped in afterward to tell Burbage it was nothing personal.

“They said it’s not about me,” Burbage says. “It’s about all of us trying to sort this thing out.”

That doesn’t make this any easier.

Burbage’s is much like it was 50 years ago.

Along one wall you’ll find all the staples — Cheerios, Hunt’s Tomato Sauce, Dixie Crystals sugar — lined up neatly underneath photos of Robert Burbage through the years. Some of them date back nearly to 1946, when the store opened on Tradd Street.

In the back there’s an old meat counter and a silver freezer out of another era, up front is a butcher block that’s been there longer than Al.

The store evokes nostalgia without wallowing in it.

Al Burbage started working in the store when he was 12. He was a big kid, able to do the hard work — but he jokes that it was a way for his father to keep him from running the streets.

During college he lived upstairs, and except for three years at another company, he’s always worked at the grocery store.

In 1987 he bought the store from his dad, and as luck would have it, Robert Burbage stayed on for another 20 years. Dad was the face of the store, giving Al time to do all the behind-the-scenes work.

Al Burbage has adapted to the times, and the changing neighborhood. Before Hugo, the store had two trucks that made 75 to 100 deliveries a day. After the 1989 hurricane, the painters and construction workers who came in didn’t want to buy a pack of lunch meat and a loaf of bread — they wanted a ready-made sandwich.

Burbage complied.

Through it all, the store has remained a lot like it used to be. Beach music — the Drifters, the Tams — plays through the store all day, evoking memories of its heyday. But in the old days, Burbage notes, they didn’t play music. They were too busy.

Somewhere along the way, Burbage’s became more than a simple store; it was part of this city’s storied history.

“It’s definitely a part of Charleston that a lot of people don’t want to see go by the wayside,” Burbage says.

That gives him a mixture of pride and pain.

Burbage and his wife Myrtis moved from the suburbs to upstairs over the grocery store in 1997, when it became obvious that they were not meant to have kids.

His stepson tried to work there for a while, but it wasn’t for him. Even Burbage concedes that this life is not for everyone.

But it makes his dilemma even more difficult.

“If I had someone to step up like I did for dad, it would be easier,” Burbage says. “It was not really my life-long dream, but it kind of worked out that way.”

So Burbage is stuck. He would like to retire before he gets too old to enjoy life, but it is tearing him apart to consider ending something that he loves, that is his family’s legacy.

Since the deal to sell fell through, he’s been getting calls every day from people offering to help, offering to buy. He directs them to his broker, and hopes to hear something soon.

Burbage has said he would make a decision by the end of this month. He has plenty of time to think about it, standing behind the meat counter that he knows so well.

But a month is hardly the blink of an eye when you have been doing something nearly half a century. So as he serves up soup, mac & cheese and sandwiches to the lunch crowd every day, this thing eats at him.

“I’ve been through the gamut,” Burbage says. “You’re shocked, surprised, you get a little bit mad. You wonder if you made the right call, you decide you did. Then you have to laugh about it, or you’ll start to cry.”

No one would blame him if he did.

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