New Lebanon loses its only market

Sour economy, tight credit, competition force owner to close 

NEW LEBANON–Signs posted on the front door announced news that few residents wanted to hear: The New Lebanon Supermarket is closing for good by the end of this week.

Customers described themselves as “shocked,” “devastated.” Georgette Tefo was so disheartened that she couldn’t shop, despite the 20% discount on the remaining stock; she said she needed to “time to process” the news.

It has been very much an old-fashioned, community-centered market. Every Tuesday was Senior Citizens’ Day, when seniors got a 10% discount and no one asked for ID. Coupons were doubled, despite the lack of competition in the area. Every $36 purchase filled a card with stamps, with filled cards entitling customers to discounts. And there were no lines; if more than two people were waiting, a call went out over the intercom for a cashier to open.

But the economy delivered a one-two punch to the market, after 27 years in business. Both the decline in the job market and the unavailability of credit have made it impossible for owner Jim Liles to continue. “I’ve put my whole life in this place,” he said, “but it’s evolution.”

His entire store, he says, is the size of a produce department at one of the “big stores,” which limits what he can stock, he said. “Wishbone, alone, has 63 varieties of salad dressing. People are exposed to that. They want one particular kind, and if you don’t have it, they’re gone.”

And there’s competition from Walmart, he said. “If I’m getting $5 for it, Walmart gets $4. I can’t hate anybody for saving a dollar.”

Stocking a store his size costs $250,000 Mr. Liles said, and when customers can’t buy–60% of his customers are on food stamps now, he said–the stock begins to deteriorate.  Things “don’t look good. Then the customers don’t want them,” he said.

The lack of available credit hurts, too, he said, “Then I don’t have the product to sell. It becomes a dog chasing its tail in reverse.”

“There’s no work here,” he said, so he can’t expect a rebound in purchasing power. “There are no jobs.”

He made many items available as specials, a feature cited by Ms. Tefo. “I always checked that center aisle. You could buy a whole case of yogurt for about the same price as two containers in the big stores,” she said.

Kathy Face, who works in town, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do. “I’m in there every day–I hate big stores. He had the best meat at the best prices.”

Another factor in the store’s decline, said one source who asked not to be named, is that New Lebanon’s residents “have to go to Pittsfield to their doctor, they have to go to Pittsfield for their prescriptions, so they figure: Why not shop in Pittsfield?” Although the nearest supermarket in Pittsfield is 15 miles from the center of New Lebanon, for many residents the necessity for that trip is offset by Pittsfield’s lower sales tax and gas stations selling gas for 18 cents less per gallon.

But for those with no transportation, losing the local supermarket presents another problem. Senior citizen Mary Lou Olson was shocked.  “How will I get what I need? I’ll be hitchhiking over to Pittsfield.” One local citizen suggested that someone with a mini-van and some time could provide shopping trips, for a fee. “It’d be a good opportunity for someone.”

One question asked after the initial shock by at least two people was, “What about Rose?”

Rose Orenstein, locally noted for the array of hats she wears while checking people out, has worked in the store for seven years. She said she will be looking for another job.

Kristine Romano, who owns Bucky’s Bagels and Pizza in the same shopping center, expressed concern for all the employees. “I wish things were booming over here–I’d take them all!” she said.

Several businesses in town are for sale; others have cut back their hours or reduced their staffing. One restaurant is said to be close to closing. Lebanon Valley Business Association President Kay McMahon said in an email that “good business people are feeling the effect of less people coming through, simply look at the amount of less traffic and then less spending even with the people still shopping. Therefore everyone is cutting back where they can and making tough decisions. Jobs need to be created.”

The LVBA will be holding a strategic planning session in mid-January to address the situation, Ms. McMahon. The group wants to “map out a plan how to better coordinate future efforts with the Town Board and other organizations to build a stronger economic base.”Town Supervisor Margaret Robinson said that it’s “truly a disappointment the store is closing as it will be extremely difficult for many residents to shop elsewhere, especially those without easy access to transportation.

“I do wish the owners and dedicated employees well and thank them for the years they provided the town with the convenience of a small customer-friendly store where a rare thing happened as customers knew employees and employees knew customers,” she said.

Mr. Liles and his wife, Debbie–who has worked at the store almost since Mr. Liles took it over 27 years ago, and whose mother and daughter and son worked there as well–plan to move to Florida. “I’m ready,” Mr. Liles said. “I can’t stand the cold.” 

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