By the numbers: Groceries in downtown Lawrence
12: Number of years Lawrence has subsisted without a downtown grocery.
186: Number of grocery suppliers in Lawrence as a whole between 1900 and 1956.
69: Number of grocery suppliers to come and go on Massachusetts Street from 1900 to the Great Depression.
4: Number of years (nearly) that Wild Oats was at 1040 Vt. before it closed in 1996, leaving downtown without a grocery.
1916: Year Piggly Wiggly, 935 Mass., became the first chain to introduce self-service grocery (before, customers were waited on by clerks).
1,800: Square feet of the average grocery in Lawrence in 1909.
2,200: Square feet of The Casbah Market.
67,313: Square feet of HyVee, 4000 W. Sixth St.
Those living in downtown Lawrence have easy access to nearly every type of food - American, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, Thai and more. But for years, the same folks have been out of luck if they were the cook-at-home type.
That all changed Jan. 1, when The Casbah Market opened its doors at 803 Mass.
"My fiance and I live downtown, so we kind of always thought that downtown needed something to make downtown a whole community," says Cassy Ainsworth. "(We) thought that it needed a grocery store."
After the most recent incarnation of the Casbah - a clothing boutique - closed a year ago, Ainsworth, 25, her fiance, Josh Millstein, 30, and his sister Casey, 23, decided they would be the ones to fill the void.
They see their new store as a customer service - not just because it is the first downtown grocery in Lawrence since Wild Oats closed in 1996, but also because it is a downtown grocery that happens to be organic, healthy and devoid of cheesy puffs.
"We want to provide them with a healthy diet at a reasonable cost because I think that you are what you eat," Josh Millstein says. "It definitely makes a difference in your mood, your performance and your happiness. All of it. You go eat a total grease bomb, you kind of feel it. It brings you down."
There are no grease bombs in sight at The Casbah Market.
Nor is there meat. The three owners are vegetarians and proud purveyors of a healthier lifestyle.
"We're all very healthy," Casey Millstein says. "Josh and I are born-and-raised vegetarians, and the more we learn about our food and our environment, we're really concerned with trying to spread the educational value of how important it is to put clean food in your body. And how easy it is. Some people think it's an upper-class lifestyle, and it's just not. That's why we're trying to do our best to keep our prices low, so everybody can live healthy."
Whole food for everybody
What is in the store is everything else one would expect from a market - without all the processed, unnatural ingredients. That's something the owners know goes against the grain.
"I expected more negative feedback than we got," says Ainsworth of customer reaction to the store's focus. "I guess it's a reflection of the societal viewpoint on the importance of being healthy."
What customers can find are shelves, neatly lined to one side opposite the store's produce section, and stocked with everything from organic tea to natural cleaning supplies to cult favorite No Pudge! brownie mix.
Down the steps brings one to the bulk area, where customers can stock up on granola, trail mix, seeds and other items. Next to the bulk area is a selection of prepared, refrigerated and frozen foods - milk, cheese, yogurt, even beet hummus.
To the left of the prepared foods is the Nice Cafe, the store's take-away business that has a Caribbean flavor. Jesseman Gray, the cafe's cook, created the menu of salads, soups, juices and entrees with one cohesive purpose in mind - that his food be as healthy as possible.
"My goal for the cafe is really to provide whole food - really low-fat, whole, fresh food at a really reasonable price. Because there's this misconception ... that it has to cost a ton of money," Gray says. "I think it's an investment."
The cafe, Gray says, also made its own investment in that it uses more expensive to-go containers that are better for the environment. The containers are biodegradable, compostable and made from renewable resources.
Like its food, the store's environment is at the complete end of the spectrum from the traditional grocery store - no harsh fluorescent lighting, crowded spaces or cleanup on aisle five. With reggae music gently playing, the feeling is inviting and warm.
Warm - exactly like the place that inspired the store's desired feeling: Jamaica. The Millstein family has taken dozens of trips to the island and hoped to give the store the same breezy, laid-back feel.
The owners also are looking to recreate the vibe David and Susan Millstein, Josh and Casey's parents and the owners of the Casbah building, were able to experience as business owners decades ago.
"Back when them and all their friends were buying up the real estate in the '60s and '70s, it was this really funky, groovy kind of deal, and we're just trying to resurrect that spirit," Casey Millstein says. "We're trying to be involved with everybody (downtown) and try to form a really stable community. That's what we're here for, you know."
They believe the stores should work together to support each other - and that connection includes like-minded businesses such as the Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa. Though they both cater to customers who are looking for an alternative to the conventional, Jeanie Wells, general manager of the Merc, says she has been happy to answer the owners' questions since the birth of their business plan.
"I think it's great that downtown has some good choices for good food," Wells says. "When we first heard about it, we were excited. I think that Lawrence is a town where more and more people value quality food, organic food, local growers and are happy to make that connection. We welcome them. We've had a very friendly relationship with them."
Also welcoming the store are the folks the Casbah owners are most would like to have a relationship with - the customers.
"It's very charming," says first-time Casbah Market customer Krystyn Renfro of Lawrence. "I was so sad to see the Casbah (boutique) leave, I'm so excited to see something with some integrity come in its place."