The Dueling Butchers of Western Avenue

The north end of St Paul's Western Avenue is a curious place. For some reason, three doors down from my house you'll find two different family-run eighty-year-old butcher shops sharing the same corner. 
[Western and Cook Avenues c. 1923. Note the streetcar.]
Discovering this is a surprise. In this modern era of retail cannibalism and super-dupermarket shopping, having an ancient family run butcher nearby is quite the accomplishment. If, when traveling around the Twin Cities, you should happen across an old market that has somehow outlasted the the economic ups and downs, somehow survived the cutthroat competition, stop your car and buy something. Perhaps a home-made bratwurst? A tub of potato salad? A pigs ear? For a butcher shop to last so long in America is a miracle.

Which is why Western Avenue is so curious. They have not one, but two of these butcher shops. They're almost literally across the street from each other, an uncanny confluence of butchery. One is called Stasny'sFood Market, the other is called Kamp's Food Market. They each make their own bratwurst, Italian sausage, and ground beef. They each sell a variety of “packs” of grillable things at various price points. In each store you'll find a shop owner with large forearms and young apprentices working behind the meat counter at the end of the aisle, ready to slice your bacon or wrap your steaks. Each store stocks produce and canned goods and soda and cigarettes and lottery tickets. Each descends from the era when a streetcar ran down the street and dead-ended, turned, and returned to downtown St Paul at the corner of Western and Case Avenues. And somehow each has survived all this time.

[The view of Kamp's from Stasny's.]
Of course a trained eye can discern differences between the butchers. Stasny's Food Market is the more “traditional” of the two. There's a large stopped Regulator clock on the wall by the butcher counter that keeps everything inside the store from changing. They cater more to the older white working class part of the neighborhood. Fire fighters park their big red trucks outside the store while picking up meat for their backyard barbeques. Each year during hunting season lots of quiet men stop by in the night to drop off deer carcases for dressing. Stasny's still closes each day at 6:00 PM, and isn't open on Sundays. Stasny's is also a few years older, and like any older sibling, milks its experience.

Kamp's, on the other hand, is what you call “newfangled.” They are a bit bigger, and stay open until 9:00 PM. They actually try and cater to the increasingly diverse neighborhood, having a Latino foods section with a smattering of Goya products and selling a variety of sports apparel. They sell donuts each Sunday morning for 60 cents a piece.

But that's about it. Somehow these two stores have been peacefully coexisting all these decades, both grinding out a living in a small St Paul neighborhood.

[The view of Stasny's from Kamp's.]
The Great Butcher Battle of 2011

Something odd happened the other day though. As near as I can figure, another old butcher shop on Rice Street (a mile away) had finally bit the bullet and gone out of business, and Kamp's had recruited their butcher. Presumably this butcher brought over some of his clients, and all his nostalgic prestige, and added himself to the collective roster of Kamp's. That much was of little consequence.

The thing that really made an impact though was that, the next day, Kamp's hung out a big neon yellow sign on the corner telephone pole. It said, "Jimmy Biglow from Capitol City Meats IS HERE At Kamps."

The sign loomed over the streetcorner like a zepplin. Western Avenue would never be the same. The delicate balance of charcuterie had been upset. The gauntlet had been thrown. In one single gesture, Kamp's Food Market threatened to gain the nostalgic upper hand. Combining the forces of two old school butchers behind one counter, Kamp's threatened to “out butcher” Stasny's, claiming titles to longevity, experience, and old butcher wisdom. Something was not right. Something had to give.

And something did happen, a few weeks later. A new sign appeared in front of Stasny's store. It was also yellow, also posted high on a telephone pole. It read, “Stu from Rice Street Meats is HERE!!!” 

[One of the signs is now in its second iteration, having been replaced and made more striking.]
Somehow, somewhere, despite the impossible odds, another old Rice Street butcher shop had closed and another old butcher had appeared in the night, wandering meatless in search of a home. And somehow, he'd ended up at Stasny's, joining forces to right the scales of meaty justice and reset the balance of power on Western Avenue.

All this happened months ago. The signage is still up, slowly unyellowing in the hard summer sun. The two signs sit not 100 feet from each other, facing off in an eternal butcher battle. If you stand between them you can feel the tension. You can just make out the sound of a meat cleaver whispering in the wind.

The two markets have gone back to their usual routines. Small flicking smiles have begun to reappear under the mustaches. It seems like everything might be back to normal. Just don't ask me which bratwurst is better. I won't tell you. I don't want to have to choose.


David said...

This is a perfect example.

See: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/levin031/transportationist/2011/03/the-hammock-district.html

An illustration of the clustering of similar retail activities:

Hank Scorpio: Uh, hi, Homer. What can I do for you?
Homer: Sir, I need to know where I can get some business hammocks.
Hank Scorpio: Hammocks? My goodness, what an idea. Why didn't I think of that? Hammocks! Homer, there's four places. There's the Hammock Hut, that's on third.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Hank Scorpio: There's Hammocks-R-Us, that's on third too. You got Put-Your-Butt-There.
Homer: Mm-Hmm.
Hank Scorpio: That's on third. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot... Matter of fact, they're all in the same complex; it's the hammock complex on third.
Homer: Oh, the hammock district!
Hank Scorpio: That's right.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for "anne shom", but I came across this wonderful article. Perhaps this was the butcher district of old times, and these two stores are the only surviving remnants. How much is a pizza puff, by the way... that sounds delicious. I see it advertised in your picture of Stazney's (or is it kemps?).

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