If you didn’t know any better, you would think that Allen Seletsky could walk into his Five Seventy Market in the South End at any moment, his legion of loyal customers right behind him. Everything — from gourmet coffees to upscale peanut butters to Vermont maple syrup — sits on the shelves exactly as it did on the day in March that Seletsky died.
For these past four months and counting, the grocery sits virtually frozen in time, its doors locked, an oddity to the people who pass by it on this bustling stretch of Tremont Street. But those passersby probably don’t know the half of it.
The store has sat in its current state not so much because Allen Seletsky died, but because his family wants his commitment to the South End to live on. There are no plans for the space to go to the highest bidder. Rather, they’ve told their real estate broker that they will lease only to someone who will open a neighborhood market. That means Cumberland Farms and 7-11 need not apply.
In that, the family may have violated almost every norm of doing business.
“It’s not about the money,” said Emily O’Connell, Seletsky’s life partner. “He loved this store. He would have wanted to do this again.”
If it were about the money, a big “for lease” sign would have been hung out front, and the listing would have been promoted nationally. The family would have also sought out a restaurant or a cafe, which generate the highest rent; the market sits on South End’s restaurant row surrounded by B&G Oysters, Aquitaine, and Stephi’s on Tremont. Still, it’s a prime location, so even the ideal tenant will have to pay fairly substantial rent.
Instead, the family’s broker, Ron Geddes of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, began quietly marketing the 2,000-square-foot space a few weeks ago. Had the veteran broker done what he normally does to get the word out, Geddes said, “the phone would have not stopped ringing.”
He’s worried not about finding enough bidders, but finding the right ones. Geddes said he already has one offer but continues to entertain prospects. He anticipates a long vetting process to find someone who can recreate the eclectic corner market that seemed to satisfy the many whims and appetites of the South End, everything from wheat grass shots to panko chicken sandwiches to infant formula.
Geddes thinks a new owner could possibly reopen by Thanksgiving. He wouldn’t divulge the store’s annual sales, only to say that Seletsky’s business did “extremely well.”
Not by luck. Seletsky was the store. He practically lived there. He would come in to help open the store at 6 a.m. and stay almost to closing time at 10 p.m.; he would slip home midday to nap.
He insisted on living nearby, renting a place on Union Park. Once he got an apartment so close he could sit in the living room and peer out the window to keep an eye on the store.
Seletsky, who grew up in Newton, fell in love with the South End’s Union Park, starting in the late 1970s, long before gentrification took hold. Back then, the tree-lined street of Victorian-era brick town homes — bisected by a park and a fountain — were rooming houses in the process of being converted into condos.
While the neighborhood was vastly different from the one it is today, one constant has been the presence of a food purveyor at the corner of Union Park and Tremont. Geddes, who lived on Union Park in the 1960s and 1970s, recalls the spot as “Union Park Deli” before it became the Bostonian Market when Seletsky bought the business and the property in 1983.
Carl Lizio, one of Seletsky’s Union Park friends, said Seletsky wanted the store because he thought the neighborhood deserved something better. “He saw it was possible,” said Lizio.
A few years after running the store, Seletsky got new next-door neighbors, Gordon and Fiona Hamersley, who opened a restaurant at 578 Tremont St. with the hopes of drawing foodies from all over the city to a then-sketchy part of the South End.
Gordon Hamersley fondly remembers Seletsky’s mart.
“It was like an anchor for the South End,” said the chef-owner. “It was a place that opened early and closed late. There was essentially no food market in the South End. People used to go there for staples.”
Hamersley counted himself as a customer. When the restaurant needed a box of pasta or a pint of ice cream in a pinch, it was the go-to place.
“We used it all the time,” said Hamersley, who would later move Hamersley’s Bistro across the street and stay there for the next two decades before closing it in 2014. (Hamersley is now a regular contributor to the Globe’s food section.)
Seletsky ran the Bostonian Market for a decade before moving to New Jersey and leasing the store to someone else in the early 1990s. A serial entrepreneur, Seletsky also owned a lighting store and ran an advertising business.
When it was time to renew the lease in 2008, Seletsky decided he wanted the store back. He took over the business, renovated the store, and renamed it after its 570 Tremont St. address.
His vision, according to his life partner O’Connell, was to create a store that was the “neighborhood’s pantry, open 365 days a year.” If you found your cupboard without something, you would head out to Five Seventy to look for it.
Seletsky was also particular about the coffee he brewed and promoted healthy eating, even hiring a vegan chef to prepare foods and offering kombucha, a fermented cold tea, on tap. The store motto became “like none other,” and he prided himself in stocking the place with local products and customer requests.
“He broke every rule,” recalled Lizio, his longtime friend. “He didn’t treat his employees like employees. He treated them like family. He listened to his customers.”
At the beginning of this year, Seletsky fell ill. He closed the store on Feb. 19 and passed away a few weeks later at the age of 57. Among his survivors is his son Andrew Seletsky, 24, who inherits the Tremont store.
But beyond being a business owner, Seletsky gave back to the community and sat on the board of the Union Park Neighborhood Association. On Sunday, the group paid tribute with a concert in the park and a proposal to install two wooden benches in his memory in front of the store.
For James Alan Fox, the association’s president, Seletsky’s family is honoring his life’s work by keeping the place a local market.
“He was extremely community-minded,” said Fox, the well-known Northeastern University criminologist. “They don’t want a big corporate owner, an absentee owner. They want someone who will be part of the neighborhood.”