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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 29, 2010
End of an era?
By Zach Simeone
KNOX The Knox Country Store, long a social hub for town residents as well as a place of convenience, closed last week and is being sold by its owner. It moved into its current location in the hamlet on Berne Altamont Road in July of 1978.
“Really, it was just due to many different factors,” said David Lipper, the store’s current owner, of why he closed the business. “The economy definitely played in, but there were some personal changes, which I’m not really going to go into, which forced us to close.”
Lipper bought the store from his stepfather, Joseph Best, in the fall of 2007. Best, a former Knox Town Board member, thinks that the store might have survived if it received more local support.
“Other than the economy being bad, from what I saw, the people of Knox just didn’t support the store, and I don’t know why,” said Best, who retired to Virginia. “Every time I came up, and I came up every six months, I’d see a lot of Knox Country Store customers either at the Stewart’s down in Altamont, or the old Ketchum’s store, and I’d stop by and say hello. And I’d look around and say, ‘What the heck’s going on?’”
After selling the store, Best moved to Virginia to work on his writing. He returned to the Hilltowns last year to sign copies of Aim for the Red Brick Wall, a book he published.
“I’m not surprised that a business that depends on local traffic couldn’t stay long, because the economy is so bad,” Best concluded. “Maybe the people who ordered pizza every week started ordering it every three weeks instead, or maybe, ‘I’ll skip that cup of coffee every day’…I feel that the townspeople should have at least given them some support so they could stay open, but they just drove by.”
Last month, the house next door to the store, which Best owned, was foreclosed, and it was up for auction earlier this month. According to Steven J. Baum PC, the law firm handling the foreclosure, Best owed $250,670. An employee of the store said Lipper was living in the house when it was foreclosed.
Best bought the store in 2001, he said. While he couldn’t recall how much he had bought the property for, he said he sold it to his stepson, Lipper, for $215,000. Now, Lipper is selling the property for $350,000, and has enlisted help from Chasity McGivern, a sales associate at Prudential, to do so.
“It’s the first time I have sold a store like this,” said McGivern. “I think the biggest obstacle and hurdle right now is, can you make it happen?” She said she is concerned about competing with the ongoing sales of other Hilltown eateries.
“It’s tough in this economy, and you want to know that you’re selling something that’s better than the next property,” McGivern concluded.
Lipper would like to see it remain a store, but this is not a requirement for sale, he said.
“It’s definitely prime rural commercial real estate; definitely a center of the community; a lot of people did come in to chat, hang out, that sort of thing,” said Lipper. “We definitely enjoyed our time there, but it didn’t fit in with everything going on.”
More than a store
Before Best bought the store nearly 10 years ago, it was owned by Russ Pokorny, now Knox’s assessor, and his wife, Amy. The Pokornys bought it from Ted Morehouse, who purchased the building from Jeff and Maryann Bidwell. Harold and Virginia Schwenk sold it to the Bidwells, and it was the Schwenks who built the current building in 1978.
“You have to do everything you possibly can to get people to come in the door,” Pokorny told The Enterprise. “You’ve got to make it interesting.”
One method of bringing customers in was turning the store into a venue for entertainment, which fostered the store’s social atmosphere.
“I started a fiddle band, and we had the band playing there every Friday night,” said Pokorny. “The Viscios came in every Friday night, and we’d have people standing by the coolers playing with fiddles, and hammers and dulcimers. We found five or six people to play brass instruments, and we used to practice in there. We were entertaining ourselves, you know, but it brought customers in.”
It wasn’t long before the Knox Town Band and the Knox Traditional Strings were born (see related story), and the Hilltown Gospel Singers eventually started performing there. They also had tournaments for “Magic: The Gathering,” as Pokorny’s stepson was a fan of the popular card game, and Pokorny also gave piano lessons there sometimes. But running the store was tiring, he said, and the pros were eventually outweighed by the cons.
“Even if you do everything you possibly can, it’s still a struggle,” said Pokorny. “So, when we were running it, you’re in the red for sure between January and April, because the electric bill is $2,000 a month; mortgages can be a couple thousand; and people retreat into their house, and they apparently don’t buy food,” he joked.
“It takes an awful lot of energy to run it; I guess we felt we’d run out of energy on it,” he went on. “But you really get to know everybody. As a result of the store, we ended up joining the Kiwanis club; the fire department; you get invited everywhere; and it’s fun. But we’d done it for five years, and we were tired out.”
He concluded, “I’m going to miss going in there.”