What’s a neighborhood grocery without cold beer? And what’s the Toole Avenue Food Center without a pair of keno machines in the corner near the door?
In danger, according to Dan Lester, owner of the popular Northside grocery, who didn’t renew his gambling license as of July 1 and who is voluntarily letting his profits diminish 25 percent by natural attrition as the last six packs of beer and bottles of wine go out the door.
“That’s half of my sales and 100 percent of my profit,” Lester says.
Nevertheless, the move brings the store in line with Lester’s own spiritual beliefs. He directs Missoula 3:16, a gospel-based day mission serving about 2,000 meals a month to a homeless population that includes plenty of alcoholics.
“As I became more familiar with Scripture, I just couldn’t minister down there and sell it here,” says Lester, whose grocery is only five blocks away from the mission.
Lester says he was “saved” four and a half years ago while watching a passion play, in which scenes about the life and crucifixion of Christ were dramatized as moral instruction. Lester understood then he should dedicate himself to a rescue mission offering food and religion.
He purchased the store in 1977, shortly after moving to town from Butte, sold it in 1981 to finish an accounting degree at the University of Montana, and then repurchased it in 1983. If there’s any hope of remaining in business, he says, it resides with the convenience store in the University Center, which sells sandwiches prepared in Lester’s deli.
Still, Lester exudes the confidence that comes only with religious faith, as changes in the Northside neighborhood have altered his business climate in recent years. For instance, Whittier School ceased to be an elementary school, the Scott Street Bridge was built, White Pine Sash closed, and a convenience store opened nearby on Orange Street. Since then, the building has been converted into four apartments. New supermarkets have also drawn away their share of shoppers.
At the Toole Avenue Food Center a countertop with stools and newspaper now occupies the corner where the gaming machines were. Soon the beer coolers in back will be replaced with booths. In the meantime, Lester is selling extra-lean burger meat at $1.49 a pound.
“We’re just giving it away to get some traffic in here,” Lester says.