General store closes for good

Customers mourn the departure of Uniontown fixture

August 01, 1999|By John Murphy and Brenda J. Buote | John Murphy and Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Residents of Uniontown said goodbye to a village landmark yesterday. The historic T. L. Devilbiss General Store closed its doors for the last time as dusk settled in the sleepy hollow.

Loyal customers said their farewells the best way they knew how: They bought out the store, down to the last piece of penny candy.

"It's sad to see it close," said Anna Marie Devilbiss, 71, who shares a surname with the store owner, Caroline "Toots" Devilbiss, but is not related.

Anna Marie Devilbiss moved to Uniontown 53 years ago. "For many years, it was the only store I knew," she said.

For many who gathered in its narrow aisles yesterday, the store's closing is a tremendous loss. But Caroline Devilbiss makes no apologies. Her reasons for retiring are simple.

First, her longtime business partner, her brother Robert Devilbiss, died in April after a long fight with lung cancer. Since then, each day has been a painful reminder that she must run the store alone. "I do miss him terribly," she said.

And second, the tiny store -- whose worn wooden shelves held everything from gloves to sliced cheese to penny candy -- had ceased to draw many customers.Some days the door swung open only a few times. Competition from supermarkets and chain stores had cut into business.

"We knew we weren't making any money. We knew that, but we kept it. I don't know. I guess for tradition we stayed here," she said.

But tradition was no longer a sufficient reason to open the store every morning. Business grew worse last year when Devilbiss closed the store's one-window post office, where the town's 250 residents picked up their daily mail.

"It's so dull. I really want to get out and stop waiting around," she said. "I don't feel like sitting 12 hours a day [for] a few customers. That's why I'm getting out I'm just going to take it easy."

That's something Devilbiss hasn't done since she was a young girl, when she began working in the store with her father. Thomas L. Devilbiss took over the business in 1921, 13 years after his wife's parents -- Devilbiss' maternal grandparents -- bought the modest two-story house and turned what was a first-floor pharmacy into a general store.

Then, the store was always busy, as much a community hall as a place to buy bread or flour. A spittoon, kegs of nails and barrels of sugar and molasses lined the store walls. A long wooden bench and potbellied stove occupied the center of the store. On many winter days, local farmers would come in from the cold for conversation and checkers.

In 1920, Devilbiss was born above the store, in the front bedroom of the white clapboard building. Her address has not changed in 79 years.

"I never thought about leaving," she explained.

Old canisters and advertisements from the store's early days line the top shelf: A bottle of British Oil, "Owl Brand" castor oil and tin ice cream scoops decorate the narrow shelf above the cash register.

On a recent morning, a few customers drifted through the screen door. One man bought a pair of brown gloves. A woman bought tomatoes. Others came for chocolate milk or soda.

Kenneth and Elsie Baust stopped by for one last look.

"For as long as I've known anything, this store was in Uniontown. There were other stores, but they closed up," said Kenneth Baust, who stopped at the store every time he drove through Uniontown. "We won't have any place to stop now."

Roland Childs, 67, who has lived in Uniontown since 1955, recalled running out before dinner for milk or bread at the store -- about a five-minute walk from his home. He would inevitably bump into neighbors and start talking.

"It would take me an hour and a half to go to the store and back. By the time I got back home, supper was over," said Childs. "We are going to miss it."

Added his wife, Barbara: "I came here as a little girl and bought penny candy. It's a tradition I enjoyed sharing with my grandchildren. For them, the highlight of visiting grandma was coming to the candy store."

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