‘We’re sick about it’: Leon’s Thriftway is closing after 50 years. But will it return?

Leon Stapleton is perched on a high stool in the corner, surveying the namesake grocery store he founded 50 years ago this summer.

A steady stream of customers come through on this rainy weekday morning — some new, some who have been shoppers nearly from the beginning, and one former Frito-Lay deliveryman who wants to bid a final goodbye to the store and give Stapleton a hug.

Leon’s Thriftway plans to shut its doors this week, citing poor sales.

“We’ve got to go,” said Stapleton, 93, who still stops in the store daily. “I’m going to miss a lot of friends after all these years. We didn’t want to do it but it was kind of forced on us.”

Leon’s, at 4400 E. 39th St., is one of just a few east side grocery stores and one of the oldest black-owned grocery stores in the country.

Leon and his wife, Willosia, opened the store in 1969. They wanted to build something that they could pass on to their seven children.

They all had their first jobs there. Vernon Stapleton not only stayed on, he opened Bottles Liquors next door and also owns a laundromat on the east end of the center.

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Vernon Stapleton hopes to bring back the store his father founded 50 years ago. Joyce Smith

To keep the spirit of Leon’s going, he plans to stock some basic grocery items at Bottles while he works to revive Leon’s as a full-service grocery store with more modern amenities.

If the financing comes through, Stapleton will buy the Seven Oaks Shopping Center and remodel or rebuild it, enlarging Leon’s space.

At 9,000 square feet, Leon’s is a fraction of the size of most supermarkets and lacks their common service departments such as floral, pharmacy and bank. Over the last two years, sales have dropped about 50% and its staff went from 30 employees to 10, which now include Vernon Stapleton’s daughter, his sister and her daughter.

“There are too many new stores. We just couldn’t compete,” he said.

Eugene Coody, now in his mid-50s, remembers coming in to the store as a child. Now he stops in a couple of times a month to pick up groceries, pay his light and gas bills, and cash his paycheck.

“It’s kind of sad. I hate to see them go,” he said, looking around at store shelves that were already empty in some places.

Sisters Jaunita and Earlene Jackson, who live near the store on the same block, also have been shopping at Leon’s for decades.

“We’re sick about it, just sick,” said Jaunita Jackson. “We have different places we could go but you have to get in the car to get there or have to get on the highway. They have always been nice and friendly. They’ve been a jewel for the community.”

Leon Stapleton had returned home from World War II in 1946 with a little Army money, wanting to take it easy for a bit. But his preacher urged him to apply for a job at Safeway at 11th Street and Troost.

The big grocery chains were trying to hire black employees and the manager had lined up 18 staffers to greet him, but only a couple would even shake his hand. After they worked with him for awhile, they liked him so much they invited him to their houses.

As an owner, he prospered for decades. But by 1989, there was a movement to turn Leon’s into a co-op with Leon Stapleton staying on as manager. Although more than 1,200 people signed up, they needed about 300 more members.

The neighborhood also rallied around the store about a dozen years ago when there was talk of declaring the site “blighted” so it could be replaced by housing.

Many of its loyal customers walk to the store or take the bus, not buying any more than they can carry. Sometimes, on rainy days, Leon Stapleton gave customers rides home.

But there are no longer enough loyal customers to keep the store profitable.

“I started out when I was 20 years old so that’s all I know,” Leon Stapleton said Tuesday. “I might have to retire. I’m kind of tired.”

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