Many Queen Anne residents recall Nelsen’s Quality Grocery on 325 W. Galer Street, which is currently Top Pot Doughnuts.
Run by Donald Nelsen until 2001, it was the longest continuously-operated grocery store on Queen Anne Hill. It began business across the street in 1919 at 401 W. Galer as Nelsen’s Fancy and Staple Groceries, owned by Don’s aunt Elizabeth. Her brother Magnus — Don father — worked at Helgesen’s Grocery, a Norwegian market, and later joined his sister at Nelsen’s. The family had emigrated from Norway.
That original location included an ice cream parlor in 1920 and carried home baked items, French pastries, tobacco, and school supplies as well as groceries. Located on the streetcar line, Nelsen’s also offered grocery delivery. The original building, built in 1910, is now home to Rafael Carrabba Violins.
Around 1943, Nelsen’s Grocery moved across the street to 325 W. Galer St. According to Carol Nagy, a longtime friend of Don Nelsen and owner of the (now closed) Soft Coverings store next door, the Nelsens decided to move in order to get the more desirable corner location.
Built in 1913, that new location had been the home of Red & White Grocery, run for years by the H. J. Carolus family. After the Carolus family left, several others operated grocery stores in the space until the Nelsens moved in.
Don Nelsen’s niece Carol Oversvee Johnson recalled, “My early memories of Nelsen’s were of the barrels of nuts and other staples and the bulk cookies sold from corrugated cartons that had glass doors on the front. There were just a few ice cream treats in a small Carnation Company freezer. Spices, stored in heavy pressed glass jars, were sold in bulk. For the benefit of the carriage trade, the store carried some exotic ingredients such as pickled walnuts and various dried fruits. The store smelled of ground coffee, spices and smoked meats, an odor that still faintly lingered at the time the business closed. I had told Don that if I were blindfolded and brought into the store, I would know exactly where I was. One special memory was picking up the receiver, listening for the operator’s “Number please” and then reciting the number Garfield 0011 and hearing my Grandpa Nelsen answer to take our grocery order.”
The new Nelsen’s store carried vegetables, fruit, meat, spices, baking supplies, Pepsi, Gai’s breads, cereals, packaged foods, and more, but to local children it was the candy counter at the 325 West Galer St. location that was foremost in their minds. Located in the front of the store on the wall behind the cash register stand, it held hundreds of classic candy bars (Snickers, Milky Way, Hershey’s, and all) as well as more unusual bars, and a wide variety of chewing gums, snacks and baseball cards.
The store also carried some foods from the old country, such as lingonberry jam and fish specialties from Norway.
Nelsen’s Grocery had an unusual tin-lined room in the back on the upper level, which was a movie projection room, according to Nagy and David Stettler, who remodeled the grocery space after Don Nelsen retired. Don Nelsen talked about this room, describing it as a part of a silent movie theater in the building that was active long before his time. The room’s window is still visible near the roofline of the building, on the Fourth Avenue West side.
Tin rooms were required to minimize the fire hazards of old arc lamp movie projectors. Having worked on the rooms at Soft Coverings next door, Stettler also pointed out that the back room there had a slanted wood floor, such as is found in a movie theater for improved viewing, as well as a screen area. Mr. Stettler recognized the movie theater installation, having been an actor for years in Seattle and Chicago, where he was a co-founder of David Mamet’s famous St. Nicholas Theater in the 1980’s.
Don Nelsen took over the grocery store after his aunt Elizabeth’s retirement, along with his brother Fred, who worked there until 1995. Don was a familiar figure in the neighborhood, known for his dry sense of humor as he befriended his customers, offering advice and acting as a source for neighborhood news.
He had a humorous holiday letter — Johnson recalled — in which he advertised a few specials for Christmas, and one year reminded his customers to please give him gifts with a high resale value to help his cash-flow situation. That, and a plea for no more banana bread.
His store was an unofficial after-school hangout for a group of local boys (one of whom is now a successful Seattle attorney), and Mr. Nelsen even went to the lengths of checking their report cards to be sure they were applying themselves. If he saw a grade he didn’t like, he sent the kid to the back office to do homework before he could socialize with his friends, according to Nagy. Those kids remained his friends for the rest of his life, helping out Nelsen whenever he needed them.
His generosity was well known, and like many neighborhood Queen Anne grocers, he “carried” customers who couldn’t always afford their groceries. He kept a three-by-five card file at the back of the register for those who had accounts with him.
In the 1970s he was shot and injured during an armed robbery of the store, and told friends that after recovering he almost didn’t open up the store again.
He loved cars, and in his youth had a reputation for being both debonair and part of the local social scene. He had a longtime girlfriend for 25 years, but never married because he felt the grocery store profits couldn’t financially support a wife and a family.
In his spare time he collected coins and stamps, enjoyed railroad history, and visited his cabin on Hood Canal. The store closed in 2001, and Nelsen passed away five years later.
Alicia Arter is a member of the Queen Anne Historical Society Board of Directors. For more information, go to qahistory.org.