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Closing of East German Mom-and-Pop Shops a Consequence of Unity

May 16, 1992

SATZKORN, Germany (AP) _ In the old days, every East German town had an ″Aunt Emma″ - a mom-and- pop grocery store - where people could stop for a little beer and bratwurst and the latest news in the closed Communist system.

Now Aunt Emmas are dying out - victims of unification - and with them goes a piece of history.

Aunt Emmas once dotted East Germany from the Baltic Sea to the Czech border. In a largely rural land where few people had cars and even fewer phones, the grocery stores were more than just that.

To loyal customers the proprietors were almost like family, hence the good- natured reference to an aunt.

After unification, the stores became welcome way-stations in a sea of rapid change.

But competitive they weren’t. And when big Western food chains moved in, many closed, cutting off a big source of food to villages and putting thousands out of work.

Of the more than 30,000 neighborhood shops before the East German revolution, less than 9,000 remain, and the numbers are dropping, said Mathias Vogel of the Association of Consumer Cooperatives.

Supporters of the neighborhood stores say the stores will be extinct before long.

″It’s terrible for us,″ said 50-year-old Siegfried Scheel, who used to ride his motorized wheelchair one block from his house to the tiny grocery store in Satzkorn, this village southwest of Berlin.

Scheel lives alone. Each day he would stop by Elke Schieche’s shop, where someone would help him load his basket with milk, bread, butter, beer.

″Unification is good, but it was far too fast,″ he said. ″The West is destroying us.″

Scheel’s Aunt Emma store closed on Thursday.

Now, like Satzkorn’s 300 other, mostly elderly, residents, Scheel will have to find a way to the nearest store, an outlet of a Western chain, two miles away. The bus runs every three hours.

More than 90 percent of the small Aunt Emma stores in East Germany were part of a vast consumer cooperative network, organized regionally. There were also state-owned stores, usually bigger outlets in major cities.

Although both co-ops and state stores were supplied from the same warehouses, the cooperatives were a piece of private ownership, a 140-year-old tradition that fit nicely into the Communist ideology. They were too entrenched to eliminate easily, anyway. One in every four East Germans was a co-op member.

″These cooperatives in villages weren’t just a place to go shopping or a place to go to work. They were also a cultural center,″ said Susanne Anger, spokeswoman for the German retail union.

″The consumer cooperative ... held a strong identification for the people. It was your cooperative, my cooperative. Video stores cannot replace that.″

Her union argues that state and federal governments should lend at least temporary financial aid to help Aunt Emmas survive. It says their closures will only further stress a population that’s largely jobless, more rural than the West and with fewer amenities, cars and buses.

Government-backed loan guarantees are available if a sure-fire business development plan is offered. But few have applied and no one has qualified so far, said Regina Viereg, an Economics Ministry spokeswoman in Bonn.

West German banks balk at giving loans because the co-ops own their buildings, but are on communist-appropriated land. A new government regulation lets co-ops buy their land, but banks still hesitate.

The end of Aunt Emmas began shortly after currency union two years ago, when East Germans spurned their goods for Western items they hadn’t seen in years.

All cooperatives now have delivery arrangements with west German suppliers and have had to close the small Aunt Emmas to let bigger outlets survive.

″I think the end of the consumer cooperative will come by the summer,″ Anger said.

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