More Than a Grocery, Vintage Downtown Phoenix Bashas’ Bids Adieu

M.V. MoorheadJanuary 24, 2017
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Courtesy Google Maps

Said to be the oldest continuously-operating supermarket remaining in Arizona – probably one of the older ones in the country – this Bashas’, with its monolithic, neon-lettered sign, has been a familiar spot on the Downtown landscape since it opened in 1956. It’s reportedly due to close early this year, to make way for a Trammell-Crow apartment complex.

This unwelcome news has led some longtime Valley residents to wax nostalgic. Film historian and lifelong Phoenician Richard Roberts describes the store as “a landmark in my life for many years. When I was going to Phoenix College in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was a great place to go have lunch… They had an upstairs dining area that gave you a great view of Downtown Phoenix.”

Former New Times writer Dewey Webb, who grew up in the area of 7th Avenue and Campbell, remembers that the store “was the ne plus ultra of modern supermarkets” by mid-1950s standards. “Prior to that, you went to little neighborhood markets, or Bayless, which always seemed to be scruffy and smelled like spoiled meat. Plus there was that terrific Las Vegas-type sign. They had a deli counter which was quite a novelty at the time… [The store] was a big deal, nothing really like it at the time, a supermarket showplace as it were. I don’t even think grocery stores were open on Sundays back then, let alone staying open at all hours.”

Roberts also recalls the store’s then-lavish amenities: “Their deli had all sorts of great cold cuts and hot pastrami and stuff, and they also barbecued their own fresh spare ribs. Their bakery was baking fresh bread, and they used to make this incredible rye bread that was completely square. Pastrami tasted great on it.”

The store offered a selection that, at the time, left customers almost intimidated. Recalls Webb, “In June 1960, I remember because I was at camp, I came home and the fridge was filled with strange food we never ate. Turns out one of neighbors won some kind of contest so everyone on the street got a bag of groceries from that Bashas’. Looking back, I think it was probably stuff that wasn’t selling. I remember everyone in neighborhood being baffled by a jar of capers. No one knew what they were.”

Nor were groceries the only goods to be had under that roof.

“The connecting building to the north used to be a Skaggs [Pharmacy],” notes Webb, “and you could go from one store into the other without going outside. I guess this was before grocery stores started selling everything you could buy in a drugstore. In 1970, they moved Skaggs to a newly built building that abutted the south end of Bashas, and the old Skaggs was turned into a large scale Chinese restaurant called China Doll, which had formerly been a respected hole in the wall restaurant in strip mall directly east of the store, at the southeast corner.”

The Bashas’ seems to have been a hub for life experiences that transcended mere shopping. Webb, for instance, claims a historical association with the place.

“For reasons I cannot remember or never knew,” he says, “my mom always shopped on Fridays. Maybe that was the day grocery ads came out back then. I don’t know. Anyway, in 1963, she was in that Bashas’ the day JFK was shot. She repeatedly told how she went into that store and everyone was crying and carrying on and she didn’t know why. She said other shoppers were freaking out and approaching her in tears. Pretty surreal.”

On a more personal level, a Bashas’ shopper speaking on condition of anonymity remembered another in-store drama: “In the early ‘80s, I ran into a friend in that supermarket and she flew into a wild tirade because she thought I had been having sex with her husband while she was out of town… Maybe, maybe not. In any event, the other shoppers got quite a show. They were actually abandoning their groceries to see what was going on. Probably the most dramatic thing that ever happened in that store. Screaming, cart smashing… In retrospect pretty funny – we laugh about it now – but not at the time. Even the clerks and bag boys were glued. I was mortified!”

Come to think of it, I myself had a peculiar experience in that Bashas’ which, though it can’t compete with those above, still sticks in my memory: I went shopping there once with comedian Judy Tenuta.

For a little over a year, back in 2001 or 2002, I was the in-house publicist at the Tempe Improv, and part of my duties was to schlep visiting comedians around the Valley to interviews and media appearances. The wacky, accordion-playing “Love Goddess” Tenuta played the club one weekend, and I’ll admit I was filled with dread at the prospect of spending two days with her.

She turned out to be possibly the sweetest celebrity I’ve ever met, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with her. But she was, all the same, a manic handful offstage as well as on, and when she asked if I’d mind taking her grocery shopping, and that Bashas’ happened to be handy, I had the strange experience of following her around the aisles while she threw stuff into her cart, and grabbing my arm, showing me stuff and asking “Do you think this is good? Do you think these are good?”

Walking around the store today, one is likely to be struck by how much it still feels like a happening place, and by how much of its old-school atmosphere remains. Soon, however, it will go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo.

“We don’t have an exact date for the close of the store,” says Ashley Shick, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Bahsas’. “We do think it will be in the first part of the year.”

After that, we’ll have to start worrying about Durant’s, Sing High and that Arby’s on Thomas that still has the cowboy hat sign.

Roberts puts it bluntly: “It’s another thing that made Phoenix great, and is being demolished.”