Thursday, January 14, 2010

“The Finch: Part Two”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is not literally true. In the words of Don Adams, who played in the 60’s television series ‘Get Smart’ – “Sorry about that!”

Late last year, I was urged to reopen a vacant food store by the Ledge-Geauga Leadership Council, of Thompson. Their idea was driven by the longstanding lack of such a business in the community. A package of incentives was offered that would make the start-up easier to complete.

I thought the store could be called ‘Tiny Finch.’

Support from the county was overwhelming. Still, I felt reluctant to reenter the world of professional retailing.

Ezekiel Byler-Gregg, Editor-in-Chief of the Burton Daily Bugle, acted as an intermediary of sorts. He urged me to consider the proposal carefully.

Though I declined the plan at first, Ezekiel remained persistent. Eventually, I agreed to meet with him, and members of the council, at the market site.

The morning chosen for this grocery rendezvous was chaotic. Winter weather that had avoided the county in recent weeks suddenly arrived, with gusto. Over thirty inches of frosty precipitation covered the neighborhood.

I literally had to dig out my truck before attending.

The store itself was also buried. Since it had been closed for many years, no one paid much attention to mounds of snow on the sidewalk. Or to ice that draped the front windows.

Just turning a key in the entrance door lock was difficult.

Once we were inside, there was no heat. But my friend from Burton glowed with enthusiasm, despite being chilled. Ezekiel ushered in a trio of council members as I rubbed my hands together for warmth.

“Rod,” he said. “I’d like to introduce Fran Gayle, Lyle Stefanek, and Mary DiCecco.”
I bowed, gracefully. “Good morning!”

Fran was a middle-aged librarian, with oversized spectacles and a friendly smile. She gestured around the empty room. “This place holds so many memories for me. My whole family came here to buy things. As did our neighbors. It helped weave us together as a township…”

Lyle agreed, With worn hands, he tugged at the straps of his overalls. “After a long day on the farm, I could stop here for milk and bread… or whatever my family needed. Now, I have to drive, drive, drive… to Chardon or Middlefield.”

Mary echoed their sentiments with the care of a lifelong homemaker. “I first came to this store as a little girl. My aunt worked here part-time as a clerk. She would buy me gum and candy after school. I’d like to bring my children to a place like this… if only it were open again!”

Ezekiel stroked his graying beard. “Think about this, Rodney. You could help revive something special in the community.”

I looked around the empty business. “Lots of memories here, I’m sure. But to bring back an old store like this requires a lot of work. First, we would have to get the building into working condition. Electric hookup, water and sewage, refrigeration, receiving area access, waste disposal, shelf and fixture conditions… all these things would need to be checked and brought up to standard where necessary.”

The council trio gasped.

“Then, we’d need to connect with a general grocery supplier, plus vendors who will service us with soft drinks, snacks, magazines, and those kinds of products.”

Ezekiel laughed. “A simple matter!”

“Really?” I replied with skepticism. “It takes time, Zeke. Each connection is important. A market like this can’t function without dependable suppliers.”

Mary fretted with a loose button on her wool sweater. “You sound knowledgeable, Mr. Ice. I believe our faith in you has been well placed.”

Lyle nodded in agreement. “Indeed!”

“After all these things, you would need to consider staffing and budget issues,” I continued. “Commercial insurance, advertising, building maintenance, worker’s compensation…”

Ezekiel brushed dust off of an old IGA banner behind the cash register. “Here, why not go with this group, Rodney? They do well in small towns like Thompson.”

I sighed loudly. “That era has passed, Zeke. At least in our region.”

Fran disagreed, sternly. “Why, there’s still an IGA in Painesville Township, where my sister lives!”

I reddened with embarrassment. “Oh yeah… Rideout’s. I forgot.”

“Hometown Proud,” Ezekiel said with a grin. “That’s their motto!”

“A great line,” I acquiesced. “Still, surviving with a local market is difficult. There are too many competitors…”

“What about Collins Bi-Rite in Madison?” Lyle wondered out loud. “I have friends in Madison who won’t shop anywhere else.”

I was unconvinced. “Yeah, but…”

“Or Romano’s Sparkle in Andover?” Mary interjected. “My cousins love that place!”

I was running out of breath. “That’s great, but…”

“Really, something small like the long-lost Burton General Store would do well,” Ezekiel proclaimed. “The kind of rural food emporium that IGA used to offer.”

Mary browsed the deserted aisles, lovingly. “We trust you, Rodney. You would make the right decisions.”

Lyle pointed his index finger in the air. “Indeed! Indeed!”

Fran adjusted her glasses. “Inspect the property yourself, Rodney. Then put together a business plan. We can meet next door, at Stockers on the Park, to discuss the rest.”

I fumbled for excuses. “That would be terrific, but…”

“One week from today, at Stockers!” Ezekiel shouted.

“Agreed!” the trio said in unison.

I choked with futility. “But, but, but…”

They exited while I tried to speak a complete sentence.

Later that evening, my home computer yielded information about the Independent Grocers Alliance. The group was founded in 1926, with their first location opening in Poughkeepsie, NY. By the end of that year, more than 150 stores were operating under their banner. In 1929, IGA had 2,870 outlets in 36 states. By 1938, they boasted a line of 360 ‘house brand’ products. Eventually, the collective grew to 4,000 locations in over forty countries.

After reading, I pondered the closed Thompson Market carefully.

The Ledge-Geauga Leadership council genuinely wanted to see ‘Tiny Finch’ come to their town.

But… did I?

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