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May 12, 2016

 

Longtime Preble store closing

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Tom Fox, of Uncle Tom’s Grocery and Deli, 6785 Route 281, Preble, left, chats with town resident Bill Fitch Wednesday after Fitch picked up his mail at the store. Uncle Tom’s, which has operated at the location in one form or another since 1948, is expected to close at the end of May, with Fox planning to open another business at the site at some point.

By TYRONE L. HEPPARD
Staff Writer
theppard@cortlandstandardnews.net

PREBLE — Uncle Tom’s Family Grocery and Deli was technically open Wednesday afternoon, but the shelves of the tiny store at 6785 Route 281 were almost completely bare, save a few random items.
The warm cooler toward the back of the store only had a couple of cases of beer and soda. No meat was to be found in the deli and the only reason people were stopping by was to pick up their mail.
In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service, which has offices in Preble Town Hall on 1968 Preble Road, asked Fox to allow the agency to keep the post office boxes for 60 residents in his store.
The combined post office and grocery store — the first of its kind in Cortland County and one of a handful in the state — was supposed to serve a dual purpose as a place for residents to pick up their mail and as a revenue generator for the store.
The post office at Town Hall had recently scaled back its hours of operation and is still only open until 11:30 a.m. on weekdays. Having the post office boxes in the grocery store that was open seven days a week, gave residents more access to their mail.
In addition, owner Tom Fox said Wednesday, he had hoped having the P.O. boxes in his store would inject new life into the business but that didn’t happen.
Fox said over the years he saw his customer base shrivel, due in part to industries and residents leaving town, as well as increased competition for the bigger gas station and convenience store chains popping up along Route 281 outside the town.
These factors dealt Fox a blow that his business just couldn’t recover from, he said.
“At one time, we had this store ... and four or five gas stations in this little town,” Fox said. “For years, it was kind of the hub (when) the rest of them left. In the process, we lost all our industry.”
He said unfortunately his store could not survive without the support of the town and community.
Formerly named Farino’s Groceries & Deli, the tiny store has operated at the Route 281 location in one form or another since 1948. Fox said the building was once a gas station and what used to be a motel next door has been converted into a four-bedroom home.
“This store goes way back,” he said. “It’s had several different owners, several different changes in its life.”
Fox, who served as a post clerk in the Army during the Vietnam War, said he purchased the property in 2004 after a company he worked for in Kennebunkport, Maine, closed down.
“I invested my retirement money into this and we were doing OK for a while,” he said.
Even with the decline in business, the store still saw its fair share of regulars. Local farm hands and a small group of loyal customers were part of what Fox called the “coffee club” that still stop by in the mornings.
Preble resident Phyllis Adams visited the store to pick up her mail Wednesday afternoon.
Adams said she had been shopping at Uncle Tom’s for years and she was sad to see it go, not just as a customer but as a longtime friend of Fox and his family. Plus, as someone who has lived in Preble since 1968, the store was a part of her life for a while.
“My (late) husband (Fred) worked here for many years,” she said. “I think its a shame, I really do. It’s sad. I just don’t know what more to say.”
Fox said he notified the Postal Service in January of his decision to close up shop, and has since been cleaning and clearing merchandise out of the store.
The P.O. boxes are still on the premises and people need access to their mail. Fox said his contract expires with the Postal Service at the end of the month, but he will have to keep the building open until the agency decides what to do with the boxes.
But while Fox might be down, he said he is definitely not out. He wants to run some sort of business on the property that is still in his family. Fox and his sons, Bob and Adam, have been brainstorming what type of business to open next.
“To me, it wouldn’t be healthy not to have something to do,” Fox said. “We’ll figure something out.”

 

 

 

 

Fox said he plans to repaint and make repairs around the store and that he has some ideas, so the question isn’t if he’s going to reopen a business, he said, it’s a matter of when.
“To me, it wouldn’t be healthy not to have something to do,” Fox said. “We’ll figure something out.”

 

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