Mark Woods: Westside walk leads to albums, crab shacks, coffee

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Before I even saw the two-story brick building on Edison Avenue, I heard it.

I was walking north on McDuff Avenue, just past Interstate 10. Past the almost-gone lettering on one building (“PIC N’ SAVE DRUGS”). Past a weeded lot with a small yellow school bus. Past a day-care center. Past windows covered with boards.

It was surprisingly quiet for the middle of a Wednesday morning.

Then I heard it. Christmas music. The sound of “Silver Bells” wafting down the street, seemingly coming from another time and place, 1960s Motown.

When I reached the corner of McDuff and Edison, I saw where it was coming from: the open front door of DJ’s Record Shop.

I had begun the morning, the latest leg of a walk across the largest city in the Lower 48, on Lenox Avenue, a spot with an interesting juxtaposition. The Jug Saloon on one side of the street and, in the old Normandy Mall, Potter’s House Christian Fellowship on the other. (It was early morning, or I would have stopped at Potter’s Soul Food Bistro for what some say is the best mac-and-cheese in town.)

I walked east on Lenox, crossing Cassat Avenue, and veering through Murray Hill neighborhoods. When I turned on McDuff, right before passing under the interstate, I noticed a sign that said, “Welcome to North Riverside.”

I rarely hear people refer to North Riverside. So when I walked into DJ’s Record Shop, I asked Jerry “DJ” West: Where am I?

“I consider it Lackawanna,” he said, pointing to the east. “And in this part of town, we’d call that Mixon Town.”

West opened his record shop in September 1968, at age 19. This fall he celebrated 50 years in business (and his 70th birthday).

He stood in front of the shop, wearing a brown turtleneck and jeans on this chilly morning, and recalled those days.

“I was the first black business owner on this side of town,” he said. “Back then, they’d break my windows out every day. There was a glass company on Beaver. They’d come by every day and replace them.”

He moved to this corner, from one at 34th and Moncrief, in 1974. The first story of the brick building is painted white with large cursive lettering (“Oldies, Gospel, R&B, Jazz, Rap”) and airbrushed portraits of eight musicians, from Nat King Cole to Barbra Streisand to Barry White.

Follow the music through the front door (at this moment, West said, a CD of 1960s Christmas music) and you find a jaw-dropping collection sight. Beyond the first album cover I spot — “Merry Christmas,” with Johnny Mathis decked out in ski attire — there are tens of thousands more. If this space is 3,200 square feet, it feels like 3,199 are crammed full of old music in old formats, from albums to eight-tracks, leaving just enough space for a few narrow aisles.

Back outside the shop, West rattled off a list of some of the businesses that used to be near this corner, but moved away. He says people often ask him why he doesn’t join them, maybe go to a shopping center.

“The community has been good to me,” he said. “They stuck with me. So I’m going to stay here.”

I continued walking north on McDuff, about 10 blocks to Beaver Street, where I turned right and began heading east — toward a part of town that urban planner Ennis Davis considers “authentic Jacksonville.”

Before Interstate 10 was built, there was Beaver Street. And Davis has long argued that this is an overlooked part of town, not just rich in history, but full of potential for the future.

“To get a true sense of historical, urban Jacksonville, go to Beaver Street and the neighborhoods around it,” he said. “Many of the businesses date back 50, 70, 100 years. The culture is completely different.”

He suggested I stop at Premier Meats and, across the street, Premier Seafoods. In a food desert, these are oases.

When I walked into Premier Meats, owner Sameer Kandah was behind the checkout counter, with a sticker on the register that says “We (heart) our customers.” It’s a small grocery store, a fraction the size of your typical Winn-Dixie or Publix. But it has a large meat counter, and Kandah says he keeps the prices of his meat lower than any of the big chains.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” said Kandah, who grew up in Jordan but after 35 years in Jacksonville considers it home. “I worked my way up. So I do know how it is to shop and not have enough money for food.”

He weighed several pounds of ground beef for Joyce Jones, who lives nearby.

“We need this in the neighborhood,” she said. “I love this store.”

Kandah thanked her. He suggested that when I leave the shop, I walk the block behind it. Look at all the tires, he said.

“It is a poor area, but we wish the city would take care of these areas more, as far as landscaping and cleaning,” he said. “Enforce the tire law. … If they put designated trash cans for people, it would be a lot easier.”

I did walk that block, easily finding the blight he was talking about, and returning to Beaver Street.

I walked about a mile on Beaver, reaching the turnaround point for the day — the Farmers Market.

Before walking back to the car, I took the advice of one reader and stopped across the street, at Condaxis Coffee and Tea, a wholesaler in business since 1959. You can’t walk in and get a cup of coffee. But you can ring the doorbell, walk into a small lobby and buy a bag of coffee.

I’m not sure which smelled better, the Santa’s White Christmas (Irish white chocolate and caramel) or what I picked up a block away.

Davis suggested I stop at one of the crab shacks in this area. They’re typical small markets with brightly colored exteriors. Inside, there’s often little more than a counter with the seafood and a register. Philly has cheesteaks, he said, Jacksonville has garlic crabs.

I walked into Zebo’s, which proclaims itself the “Best Crab House in Florida,” and got a garlic shrimp combo (corn, crab, potato, hard-boiled egg).

Most people drive away with their food, taking it home to eat. I walked away with mine. I was hungry. So I unsealed the plastic wrap, opened up the styrafoam container and inhaled the smell.

While walking back to my car, butter dripping all over me, I quickly realized this isn’t the ideal food for eating while walking.

So I ended up standing on the Beaver Street sidewalk, eating lunch, hearing music from DJ’s in my head and dreaming of a mug of Santa’s White Christmas.

Next Wednesday: The walk resumes at the Farmers Market and goes through the Rail Yard District.

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