Russell's Meat Market To Close After 90 Years

For much of this century, the place to get a cut of beef in Chinatown International District was Russell's Meat Market.

Since the 1980s, it also has been the place to get a lottery ticket. The tiny store at South King Street and Maynard Alley South has produced several big winners, and lines to the cash register often stretched around the block.

But luck and time have run out for the venerable store. After more than 90 years in business, Russell's will close for good on New Year's Eve.

"Everyone seems to go to the bigger stores nowadays," owner Mark Chinn said. "We were the only ones down here - us and Safeway. Now everyone's down here."

Russell's is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the International District. It opened in 1909 and was owned for decades by William Russell, an immigrant from Glasgow.

Russell sold it to his nephew before Mark Chinn's father, Bob, bought it in 1978. Bob has worked there since 1958, and still puts in one day a week to help his son.

On a crisp December morning, father and son were busy wrapping roasts for Christmas. Virginia hams swung from their hooks, and hamburger, T-bones and oxtails were neatly arranged in a glass display case.

"It hasn't changed much," said Mark Chinn, 36, looking at an old photograph.

Russell's still has the same turn-of-the-last-century light fixture reaching down from the ceiling, and an original two-pronged meat hook - big enough to catch a whale - hanging on the wall.

"I'm going to miss this place," said Martha Wood, a postal worker and customer for 15 years. "It's going to be a milestone gone. It brings tears to my eyes."

Wood wanted chitterlings for the holidays, but the store didn't stock any this year. She settled for six slices of pressed ham for lunch.

"A dollar ninety-three? Is that all?" she asked.

Wood says customers don't wait long to get their custom cuts. She chatted and laughed with Georgie Chinn, who is Mark's mother and the cashier. "It's family atmosphere," Wood said. "Feels like home."

Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, bemoaned the loss of another "community fixture."

"Butcher shops are a thing of the past," he said. As a child, he remembers his father, then a waiter at the Hong Kong restaurant, picking up a weekly order of steak from Russell's.

"It was a social event. You knew all the people," said Chew, who later bused tables at the Hong Kong.

Bob Chinn, 69, prides his family on having run Russell's. He rattles off the names of children as he wraps each family's roast, making sure it will be big enough.

"It's about one of the oldest meat markets left," he said.

The store anchors the northwest corner of the Rex Hotel building, constructed in 1907 by pioneer merchant C.D. Watson. Russell's opened at Sixth Avenue South and South Weller Street, but moved to the South King Street site less than 10 years later because of the regrade of South Jackson Street. The new Chinatown, once a tidal flat, was booming.

Over the years, Russell's appealed to various ethnic groups. Many Slavic customers liked lamb or sheep's heads, smoked in the old country style. Later, there were Poles and Germans, and then Greeks, who also liked lamb.

There were Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, African Americans.

"Once in a while, we got some pig's feet, pork stomach," Mark Chinn said. "Younger kids don't eat that stuff any more. Now they just go, `Yeeek.' "

He pulled out a price list from 1922, when oxtails were 15 cents a pound. Now they're $2.79.

Mark Chinn says he decided two months ago to close, after a steady decline in business.

He figures he can get a job with a supermarket, with better benefits and some days off. Now, he works six days a week, 11 hours a day, and has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to start cutting and wrapping meat.

"It's awfully hard for some of these small businesses right now," said Ray Chinn, manager for the property owner, Wa Sang Associates, and no relation to the Chinns who own Russell's.

Another longtime store, the Wa Sang grocery, closed in 1997 after nearly 70 years in business.

Ray Chinn said he didn't yet have a new tenant in mind for the prime corner spot.