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Mobtown Beat

Fallen Temple

Charles Village Health-Food Store Shuts Doors

By Augusta Olsen | Posted 1/26/2000

The Golden Temple, Baltimore's largest independent health-food store, will close its doors at the end of the month, falling victim to neighborhood crime and, ironically, the growth of the natural-foods and nutritional-supplements business it helped pioneer locally.

Owner Leslie Culbertson says she can no longer afford to run the 28-year-old Lower Charles Village store, citing the impact of chronic theft and changes in what was once a niche market. Although the vitamin and supplement market is booming—growing into an approximately $13 billion industry last year, according to Alan Richman, editor of industry magazine Whole Foods—independent stores are feeling the crunch as more consumers turn to discount chain stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets for items such as herbal medications and organic produce.

"Twenty years ago, a health-food store could compete because no one else was selling supplements and similar products," says Morgan Allyn, an economic-development officer with the Charles Village Community Benefits District. "Now, a store like that is burdened with competition from Giant, Safeway, CVS, Rite Aid, Fresh Fields, and more."

Shoplifting has also eaten into the store's bottom line, Culbertson says. "The city's been saying, 'We're working on Charles Village,' " she says, "but are they going to stand there and police my store so people don't walk out with it in their pockets?"

Culbertson, who also owns the Towson store Health Concern, says she's tried to sell the store but has been stymied by its shaky financial state. "No one's interested because it's not a moneymaker," she says. "A few people have said they were interested, but once they see the books, that's it."

With community members expressing an interest in keeping the business afloat, Jonas Eshelman, who owns the Golden Temple's building at 2322 N. Charles St., offered to cap the rent and the benefits district offered help in trying to sell the store, but to no avail. "A lot of smaller health-food stores [in the area] are struggling to stay alive," Allyn says. "They're not looking to expand."

Charles Village Apartments, the property's managing company, has not found a new tenant for the space the store is vacating, says Steve Crouch, the building's general manager.

Since Daya and Kartar Singh Khalsa started the business in 1972, Golden Temple has sold organic groceries, fresh juice, vitamins, supplements, and hot lunches to not only Charles Villagers but to patrons from around the city. Culbertson's father bought the store from the Singhs in 1994; she took over when he died three years ago.

For many in Baltimore, the Golden Temple's closing isn't simply the loss of a place to shop, but a fixture in the community.

"We have a diverse customer base," store manager Sandra Williams says. "It cuts across class, across race, across ethnicity. For many people who live in the city, it's a place to shop and sit down and eat—a place where those diverse people can sit down together."

"It was always pleasantly, interestingly, and sometimes challengingly multicultural at the Golden Temple," says Andrew Schindler, a 15-year employee.

Under the Singhs' guidance, the store served as a center for the local Sikh spiritual community, Schindler says, offering regular yoga classes upstairs, sponsoring a Montessori school, and opening a soup kitchen every Saturday morning for the local homeless. "The store created a context for people to learn about alternative healing, alternative spiritual practices—a chance for people to come together," he says. "It was a total educational experience."

"It is a huge loss to the community," the benefits district's Allyn says. "The Golden Temple is a sort of landmark. But it is difficult to be unsympathetic to the issues from the owner's point of view."

Disclosure: The writer is a former part-time employee at Golden Temple but is no longer affiliated with the store.

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