Closing the door on a family store New Windsor: After four generations, Roop's Grocery falls victim to changing times.

January 01, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

At 6 p.m. on the last day of 1997, Neal C. Roop turned out the lights and locked up, just as he always does. But this time, he closed the door on 101 years of family history.

It was the last day for the mom-and-pop grocery that has been owned by the Roop family for four generations. Roop's Grocery, with its high ceiling and wood floors, has been a fixture in New Windsor since 1896, when John H. Roop left the family farm to build a grocery in the small Carroll County town about two miles away.

Closing was a business decision, but one with emotional repercussions.

Roop, 40, found that it was becoming more difficult to support his family -- wife, Betty, and sons Jason, 17, and Jeremy, 11 -- and meet the expenses of operating a small business, such as paying for his own benefits. He knew he needed a retirement plan, but the income from the store didn't allow for retirement savings. Now, he hopes to find a job in sales.

"The hardest part for me is watching him go through this," Betty Roop said.

Roop and his family spent the last day greeting customers. Business was brisk in the morning and much of the merchandise -- sold at 50 percent off -- disappeared from shelves by midday.

"There were some rough moments," Roop said, as he bid goodbye to longtime customers.

Betty Roop knows how wrenching the shutdown has been for Neal, who was in third grade when he started helping his father, H. Cassell Roop, open the store in the morning. Neal returned after school to gather returnable soda bottles for pickup by a distributor. He earned 20 cents an hour.

Owning the store was the only career he ever wanted.

The closing of mom-and-pop grocery stores in small towns and rural areas is a story that has been repeated across the nation, wherever supermarkets compete. In January, Laguna Beach, Calif., residents held a wake in a parking lot to mourn the closing of a locally owned grocery store that had served the community since the 1940s. In July, the last mom-and-pop grocery in Council Bluffs, Iowa, closed after 77 years.

The New Windsor store had about 2,000 square feet of space, used for groceries, household cleaning items, video rentals and sandwich sales. In contrast, Giant Food Inc., the newest of Westminster's five supermarkets, opened in 1991 with 56,139 square feet.

Westminster, a 15-minute drive from New Windsor, has drawn much of the town's business. Some New Windsor residents still did their weekly shopping at the local store, but "it [was] down to a handful," Roop said.

Roop has no conversion plans for his store. He had regular lunch customers for his subs -- workers from Ryland Manufacturing Center came in about 11: 30 a.m., workers from the Brethren Service Center and New Windsor Automotive Specialties showed up around noon. But he won't convert to a carry-out. A similar restaurant operates less than a block away.

New Windsor's population has grown from 842 to 1,126 in seven years, but local businesses have declined. New Windsor Pharmacy closed in 1994. The New Windsor Hardware Store closed in 1996.

"Yes, I'll miss [Roop's], like when the drugstore left New Windsor. I missed it," said Arthur "Bucky" Haines, who began stopping by the store occasionally when Cassell Roop owned it. Neal bought out his father in 1990.

People bought groceries and chatted for a few minutes at Roop's, but old-timers say it was never a hangout. The gathering spots where residents lingered to gossip and solve the world's problems were Strine's grocery, Haines American Service Station and the pharmacy, now all closed. Those places had the benches or chairs essential to loafing.

Roop's filled a different role in the community. Anyone who had a delivery for the fire hall could get the key next door at Roop's. Senior citizens who met at the Presbyterian church across the street retrieved the key from the store, where Neal kept it on a hook. Much of the food for dinners served by the Ladies' Auxiliary to New Windsor Fire & Hose No. 1 came from Roop's.

"We have depended on him ever since we were an auxiliary," Lillian Coe said as she worked in the fire hall kitchen recently. For 49 years, the store has provided rolls, celery, lettuce and ice cream for fire hall dinners.

"It's the only place we can get the sundaes we're having [for a Lions Club banquet]," Coe said.

Other customers depended on Roop's as the last grocery in the Westminster-New Windsor area that made deliveries. Jason Roop took over deliveries from his mother 18 months ago after she was sidelined by a back injury. Most clients are elderly women who live alone and are unable to get to stores.

Neal Roop has been slowly selling off his stock since he announced the closing in September. Most of the videos went for $5 apiece. The Crisco oil and canned asparagus were lined up in a single row, rather than three deep, by Christmas. A buyer from Baltimore was interested in the dairy cases and other equipment. Cassell Roop owns the building, and Neal said he and his father have not discussed its future.

Jason is studying drafting, so his parents knew he wouldn't want to take over the store.

"But Jeremy it's really hard for," Betty Roop said of her younger son, who occasionally helped at the store.

His parents entertained the possibility that Jeremy would become the fifth-generation Roop to stand behind the counter.

For Betty Roop, the silver lining is a chance to spend more time with her husband, perhaps visit relatives in California. Except for day trips, the family hasn't had a real vacation.

"When we were dating, our big word was always 'someday.' Maybe we can make some of those somedays come true," she said.

Pub Date: 1/01/98

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