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SAY GOODBYE TO THE CUSTOMERS
SoVaNow.com / August 15, 2013After dutifully overseeing the Virgilina Grocery seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for the past 20 years, Tony Tuck soon will be out of a job.
And he says he’s OK with that.
“I’m going to look forward, be positive and enjoy the time I have,” said Tuck, speaking of the Oct. 31 end date for his lease. “It’s been a very enjoyable and a very short 20 years.”
Tuck and his wife, Linda, are turning over the Virgilina Grocery to John Slagle, whose father, Jack, owns the brick storefront, a building next to the town’s fire station. John Slagle, who has been living in Salisbury, N.C., will be continuing a Slagle family tradition — the store was started in 1921 by W.R. Slagle, then-postmaster of the town. He and Jack Slagle, his son, operated the grocery until Jack Slagle branched out into a new career in the fire equipment trade. (The family firm, Slagle’s Fire Equipment and Supply, discontinued operations earlier this year.)
Jack Slagle confirmed that son John will be taking over the grocery store come November. “My son is looking forward to coming back to Virgilina. He was raised in Virgilina many years ago,” Jack Slagle said.
In the meantime, Tony Tuck is counting down the days until he departs. He said he was surprised to learn of the change in status, but there’s no hint of bitterness in hearing him talk about it. He always leased the building from month-to-month, figuring he could stay there as long as he kept up rent payments, but circumstances have changed.
“It kind of caught me by surprise and floored me — I was interested in staying there a long time — but I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. He said he’s been “blessed” by the support of customers from Virgilina and beyond, who in turn have enjoyed the convenience of a fully-stocked grocery store without having to drive all the way into South Boston, Clarksville or Roxboro, N.C.
The Tucks have operated the Virgilina Grocery since Nov. 1, 1993. At the time Linda was a teacher’s aide and Tony worked for Food Lion, when he decided to buy the store business from its previous owner, J.W. Hill, as a sidelight. That was then: The Virgilina Grocery soon became Tuck’s full-time job and a defining feature of his life. It’s been a fulfilling experience all the while, he volunteers.
His favorite part of the job? Looking out his storefront window in the morning as Virgilina’s schoolchildren catch the bus: “I’ve watched children who were five years old come into my store, and [now] they are grown up and married.”
Tuck has worked hard to cultivate the loyalty of customers, said Virgilina Mayor Ralph Murray Jr., who himself worked part-time at the grocery as a young man in high school (it was then run by Marshall Norwood). Murray called the grocery store a “fixture” that has meant a great deal to Virgilina residents for many years. “Anything we have in Virgilina is important to us,” he said.
Of the current owners, Murray added, “They have done a good job to be good neighbors in the community. Anything that you’ve needed, they’ve tried to get for you. It’s really well stocked for a country store … I hate to see it happen, but I guess it’s part of life.”
It would be hard to argue with the work ethic that Tony Tuck has poured into the venture: With a staff of five (the Tucks and their three employees, Carol Smith, James Young and Shannon Bagbey), Virgilina Grocery stays open every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., 364 days a year. The exception is Christmas Day, when Tony Tuck comes in for about five hours to greet the random customer.
“A lot of people have unexpected company come in and surprise them,” said Tuck of his decision to stay open on Christmas Day. “It’s ‘I need batteries, I need milk, I didn’t know I had company coming in’ sort of thing. I’ve never been closed since I’ve been here 20 years.”
Another unique feature of the Virgilina Grocery dates back to the golden days of mom-and-pop groceries, when credit sales were routine, especially to farmers who had to wait until the crop came in to pay off their bills. Tuck said he typically keeps about $11,000 in credit purchases on the books, mostly from customers who depend on their monthly checks to pay the bills.
“They’re honest, hard-working people trying to make it in life like everyone else,” said Tuck. “Some of them you’ve just got to help.”
(As his time at Virgilina Grocery winds down, Tuck said he’s been collecting on his monthly accounts, to the point where only about $5,000 in bills is outstanding. He said he expects all but $300 will eventually be paid off. “I might get it all,” he said.)
Running a country store is a mix of the good and the not-so-good — Tuck says he’s never been the victim of a robbery, although the store has been broken into three times — but he prefers not to dwell on the negative. Instead, it’s the simple joys that have made his time with the Virgilina Grocery worthwhile. High on the list: the kids who come into his store. They generally don’t depart without receiving a treat.
“Sometimes parents will come in here and buy cigarettes and beer for themselves and they don’t buy the kids anything, but I try to make sure they have something when they leave,” he said.
Last summer around this time, the tables were turned when Virgilina suffered a power outage during an extremely hot stretch of weather. Tuck said people in town poured into the store with portable generators to keep the refrigerators running, without which much of the stock would have been ruined: “We had so many drop cords coming through that it was probably dangerous. But it was just wonderful that there are people in the world like that.” Ultimately, he said, he lost nothing worse than a few bags of ice.
After receiving word several weeks ago that he needed to leave by the end of the October, Tuck said the hardest part was breaking the news to his employees: “That was the sad part, having to sit down and talk to them [about it]. I told them to look out for themselves. They don’t owe anything to me.
“From a financial standpoint, I can get by without the store. I’ve been very blessed, well blessed by God and by the people of Virgilina. They’ve been very good to me.”
Because of that support, Tuck said he wasn’t worried about staying open with the new Family Dollar store going up in Virgilina; instead, he had planned to “tighten my belt and make some adjustments.” Now, he’s not sure what he will do, although he knows he’s not yet ready to retire.
“I think I need something to keep me going in the morning,” he said.
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