A run of nearly 13 years ends in empty shelves and frustration
The owner of Lebanon Village Market said he closed the city’s only downtown grocery store Friday due to disloyal customers, unreliable employees and a “huge” shoplifting problem from workers and customers alike.
“Theft is huge,” Ritch Bill told me Monday afternoon when he took a break from loading dairy products into his black Ram 1500 pickup truck. “I had a number of employees that stole thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Workers weren’t the only ones, he said.
“Customers who acted like they were your best friend were ripping you off while they were talking to you.”
The store opened to much fanfare nearly 13 years ago, after the closure of the previous grocery left elderly residents and others without a full-service market within walking distance of downtown homes. Residents signed petitions, city officials embraced the cause and the community cheered when Bill (who had a business partner for the first year) reopened the store.
In addition to theft, Bill said, he struggled with a “revolving door” of employees, some of whom didn’t take their work as seriously as they should have. And while customers praised the store for its convenient location, its meat counter and other offerings, few did their weekly shopping there.
“Everyone treats it like a convenience store,” he said. “People say ‘I love your meat department but I do the rest of my shopping at Hannaford or Shaws.’ ”
The sparse revenue, along with high power bills and other costs, eventually became too much of a burden. Bill said he lost $40,000 last year and the same amount in the first four months of 2018.
There was a time when he, along with downtown residents and officials, had high hopes. Bill said 90-hour workweeks were the norm for him during the early years, and that doesn’t take into account the 2 a.m. emergency calls when the freezer broke and he had to salvage the ice cream supply.
At its height, the store employed 26 workers, a number that dwindled to the mid-teens in recent months. While most were part-time, he said, some were able to log 30-hour weeks.
Most already have new jobs. Once word got out that the shelves were emptying and closure looming, he said, other employers came recruiting for their hard-to-fill positions.
“People sniff scarce,” he said.
Bill and his store manager were the only workers there Monday, cleaning the place out and doing what they could with the items remaining on the shelves.
Dressed in faded jeans and a sweat-stained t-shirt, with a cellphone on his hip, Bill paused for a few minutes to light a menthol cigarette and lean up against the truck.
“I wouldn’t say it was a good long run,” he said. “It was a long run.”
What’s next for him?
“I don’t know yet.”
COMING TOMORROW: Store closing leaves elderly residents without a store they can walk to for milk, a grinder or a community birthday cake.