Safeway, Walgreens, and Kmart One of West Houston’s best preserved shopping centers

Howdy folks, and welcome back! It should be no secret by now, that I have a bit of an obsession with Safeway/AppleTree. While I don’t really remember Safeway’s presence in Houston, I do have lots of distinct memories of AppleTree. In learning about AppleTree, I’ve also learned lots about Safeway. One fact, I didn’t originally know, was that most Safeways in Houston were built with an adjacent Eckerd location. It seems that the deal allowed Safeway to have a strong smaller tenant as a guaranteed neighbor, and as a bonus early Safeway locations weren’t built with pharmacies, so Eckerd would have a good client mix. It seems that the Safeway/Eckerd pact dissolved at some point. With Safeway building newer stores with pharmacies, Eckerd left the task of winning over Safeway pharmacy customers to other companies. It should be noted that the Eckerd deal was not exclusive with Safeway, and they often did locate next to other grocery chains, like Weingartens, during the same time period. Over the years, most strip center located drug stores have moved to out parcel locations. The advent of the drive-thru pharmacy was likely a big push in building freestanding drug stores from the 90s onwards. Of course Eckerd wasn’t the only competition in town so today, we’re taking a look at a former Safeway which opened in 1980, along with the former Walgreens next door.

The former Safeway is located at 4705 Highway 6 North, and as far as stores from the 80s go, it’s massive. The location clocks in upwards of 45,000 Square Feet, which is larger than the Walmart Neighborhood Market across the street! This would have been one of the biggest Safeways throughout the Texas division when it was built, at a time when stores averaged closer to 30,000 Square Feet. During their first round in Houston, Safeway put emphasis on building in new and developing communities, and this store was in a perfect location. The neighborhood of Bear Creek was already relatively established by 1980, with their own Eagle Discount Grocery serving the neighborhood for the past few years, but a new development, Glencairn along with expansion of existing neighborhoods had already attracted a Kmart to this plot of land West of Highway 6. With Eagle closing their store in 1985, Safeway essentially became the only chain grocery option for these two neighborhoods. Of course, Safeway would begin to experience company-wide troubles of their own in the late 80s, that ended with the creation of AppleTree.

By 1990 little had changed in terms of grocery options in the area, AppleTree continued unabated until a new challenger arose in 1990, HEB Pantry Foods. Unfortunately for AppleTree, HEB had their eyes on a couple of former Eagle locations. Prior to this, AppleTree and Safeway had only dealt with HEB in their standard format stores in the areas around Austin. Pantry Foods was specifically designed to be as cut-throat on pricing as possible. Eliminating service departments and any other extras in favor of jam packing the stores with cheap staples. At the time, AppleTree was in the midst of bankruptcy, and not just losing customers but also employees to new competition. The decision was made in mid 1992 to shut down this store for good. Within 2 years, the space would become Hobby Lobby, who would use the building until about 2005.

As for Walgreens, their store which opened in 1980 along with the Safeway quickly became the community pharmacy for many residents. However, by 1996, increasing competition in the area drove Walgreens from this spot. By this point, Safeway and AppleTree had been closed for nearly 4 years, so it’s likely that most competition was coming from places like the Kmart in the rear of the shopping center. An interesting side note, is that while most other Kmarts of this time period were moved into Venture stores, or had their building expanded for Big Kmart, the Bear Creek store managed to survive essentially unchanged until the chain pulled out of Houston. Almost immediately after Walgreens moved out, Dollar General moved in, and would operate in this space until 2001. From then on, it has served as a Family Dollar. Many external and internal cues hearken back to the former identities of these store as they appeared over 40 years ago!

My closing thoughts on this shopping center, would be that if you’re into retail, and it isn’t a hellish drive for you, then go and visit! I’ve been coming to this area for years mostly because my younger brother loved having birthdays at Track 21, but also remember coming here with my grandparents to visit the Kmart, and Hobby Lobby. Very little has changed at this property, but don’t expect it to stay that way for good! At the moment, this is likely one of the better preserved vintage shopping centers in the area. The buildings have been able to stand up to tornados, and other natural disasters but won’t stand up against redevelopment!

6 comments

  1. As someone who has shopped at this shopping center many times over the years, I’m certainly glad that this place was covered on the blog! In the early years of this shopping center, we mostly shopped at the Kmart here, but I did stop in the Safeway/AppleTree at least a couple of times. In more recent times, my stops here have been at the Family Thrift Center. I’ve purchased a couple of pieces of electronics from that thrift and I’ve also seen some other interesting stuff that I didn’t buy. Perhaps the strangest piece of equipment I saw there was an almost new looking Alesis ADAT multi-track digital audio recorder which recorded onto what was basically Super VHS videocassettes! I considered buying it to add to my VCR collection, but unlike my other VCRs, I had no real use for that one!

    Speaking of electronics, this shopping center once had a Radio Shack in it. The facade for the Radio Shack was absolutely huge for a store as small as a Radio Shack. It was perhaps the weirdest part of the shopping center aside from the Walgreens that looked like it should have been an Eckerd!

    If I remember correctly, the original color of the facade tiles was a bronze/goldish red color. It was a bit of an odd color even for the times. The current green always looks strange to me, but I suppose it’s better than the original look. I certainly remember the tornado which hit this shopping center and the neighboring McDonald’s in 1990. That was a very big news story in this general area when it happened.

    As you rightly point out, this was a rare Kmart in this general area in the late 1990s/early 2000s in that it wasn’t a 1990s-built store or an ex-Venture Kmart. For those who wanted a vintage Kmart experience, this was it for those in this part of town. Also, this Kmart had a Little Caesar’s Pizza Station which the FM 1960 & Jones Rd./FM 1960 & 249 Kmarts did not have. Those Pizza Stations probably weren’t all that special for those whose local Kmarts had them, but since my local Kmarts didn’t have them, it was something special. Although I don’t know if it was actually true or not, this Kmart felt a tad bit bigger than the FM 1960 & Jones Kmart and so we would occasionally make a trip out to this Kmart just because it seemed to have a little bit more stuff than the local Kmart.

    This shopping center has certainly aged better than the Safeway-Kmart shopping center on 249 & Bammel North Houston where the Safeway also turned into a Family Thrift Center. That place is a real mess these days and the Family Thrift Center there rarely has electronics that are as nice as what’s at the Bear Creek store: https://goo.gl/maps/Y1pkr5a1GLwk4dkNA

    1. One of the interesting things about that old Kmart is the renovation of the classic “mansard slice” facade, rather than replacement, to include the Alamo-like hump that was used in the facades of the “Big Kmart” re-branding. Given how few classic Houston-area Kmarts were converted into “Big Kmarts” in lieu of Venture conversions or new construction, I imagine this was a fairly rare sight in the Houston area even when Kmart was still kicking.

      1. billytheskink, off the top of my head, I can’t remember any other Houston Kmarts which got a modified ‘mansard slice facade’ here in Houston. That said, the aforementioned 249 & Bammel North Houston mansard slice facade Kmart does have an Alamo-like facade, but perhaps not in the way you’re expecting it to look! Link: https://goo.gl/maps/wAEVfMmcip7KCBe5A

    2. Yeah it was a fun shopping center to go and check out. Thankfully throughout all the tenancy changes, many original building cues have managed to survive.

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