It was 10 a.m., and regulars were coming in for the last time — or the next-to-last time.
"I'll be back," said one as he walked out the door. Coming back meant getting there before 4 p.m., because when The Little Market closed its doors at 4 on Christmas Eve, that would be it.
Most year-end roundups include lists of the celebrity deaths from the year. For Colorado Springs in 2013, a similar list could cover the locally prominent businesses that have faded away, from Swish to the Peak Grill.
But losing The Little Market is like losing Bob Hope, given both its age and charm. The Market, located at the corner of Willamette Avenue and Prospect Street, opened in 1902. Chris Bettendorf has owned it since 2000. It made it through the birth of the automobile and mass media and a half-dozen American wars, but was finally done in by the economy and changing demographics. As Bettendorf told the Independent in early December, lower prices at six major nearby grocery chains — made possible by their bulk-buying discounts — drew too many people away from her corner market.
To drop in there on Christmas Eve was to witness something akin to an Irish wake.
"It feels like I'm saying goodbye to everyone because I'm moving to Europe," said Bettendorf.
"You're moving to Europe?! Can you make it Milan?" called one of the employees. Laughter followed.
A guy named Bruce, grabbing a few coffees, said he'd recently renovated his nearby home. When he moved back in, he needed staples — not milk and eggs, but actual metal fasteners — so he walked over to the Little Market. The store didn't have any for sale, so an employee grabbed a strip out of the market's own stapler and gave it to him.
Of the decision to close, he said, "I can respect it, but I don't like it."
The shelves last week were still pretty well stocked, and most items were marked down. Someone asked what Bettendorf was going to do with the leftovers. "I didn't get where I am without eating," she joked.
Any occasional lull in laughter and conversation would soon be interrupted by the jingle of the door opening.
Rob dropped a gift on the counter and walked out quickly. "I have to run to Walgreens to get you something now," Bettendorf called out to him. To which he replied, "I've gotten enough here over the years."
They told me a little later that he probably ran out so he wouldn't get caught crying.
Butch stopped and thanked each of the ladies behind the counter for the memories. They made sure he got some cashews as they talked and told more jokes.
Just about everything was for sale, from vintage signs on the walls to the aprons the staff wore behind the counter and in the kitchen. One couple was looking to buy an apron, but by late morning they were all sold out. Instead, they got the last three sausage rolls. "A bit of history," they said.
Even on closing day, the smells from the kitchen were tempting. So I grabbed a potica, a nut-stuffed rolled bread that's one of Bettendorf's specialties. As I added a blueberry cheesecake square and was about to ask for a couple runza — another specialty, of dough filled with meat, cabbage and onions — Bettendorf's daughter told me that Bettendorf wanted me to have the potica.
I tried to insist upon paying for it; generally, journalists take nothing for free, to avoid even the perception of favoritism in their writing. But Bettendorf was nowhere in sight; she had orchestrated this from the kitchen. And I was told, "She said it's not 'favoring' if we're not open, and this is our last day."
It was a losing battle. I paid for the crumble and the runza before walking out. Something tells me I wasn't the first, and probably will not be the last, to lose an argument with the shop owner.
As I got into my car, my phone rang. It was a friend who lives on Willamette, just a couple blocks from the store. I told her where I was.
Unsurprisingly, she was aware that the store was closing. "I want to kick myself," she said, "for not going there more."