PUNXSUTAWNEY — The old saying goes, "All good things must come to an end."
Last week, the Levy family, which has owned and operated the Comet Market at 1028 W. Mahoning St., announced to their employees that the difficult decision to close the store's doors had been made.
The decision, Ben Levy said, was a difficult one for the entire family, as the Comet has always been a business it has been associated with since it opened in 1963.
"As far as the West End Comet Market goes, we opened it in 1963. Other than a brief period, from about 1975-1983 when we sold it and we supplied it from the wholesale end before buying it back, it's been owned by our family," Levy said. "That's a good 50 years that we've owned it. It's been a hallmark, a Punxsy institution, which is exactly what makes it so hard."
Despite fighting tooth and nail to save the business, even after a difficult transition in May 2011 when Jefferson Grocery — the Levy's family-owned company of which the Comet was just one operation — was forced to close its wholesale division, Levy said that eventually the odds were just stacked too high against keeping the doors to the local grocery store open.
"We just haven't been doing enough volume at our store for a long period of time," he said. "We kept hanging on and hoping that something good would turn. When we went out of the wholesale business and made the transition to C&S Grocery as our supplier, it wasn't as perfectly seamless as we'd have liked it to be. That probably accelerated the process, and it never did turn around."
Later in the interview, Levy spoke a bit more about the business end of the decision.
"The flaws really came in the transition," he said. "C&S is really set up for stores that run high-low pricing, and we were really more of
an everyday low-price store. So, there was some trouble with that transition. There are also expenses that continue to rise, like hospitalization, that have exploded. That just wasn't the case 25 years ago. For the small guy, that's a tough nut to crack. It's a fine line, but you have to cover those hours. You get to a point where your sales aren't where they need to be to cover the man-hours. It's just a shame, but sometimes, it doesn't add up."
While the business end had to be discussed, though, it wasn't the numbers that tore at Levy and his family the hardest, it was the people — from employees to loyal customers.
"When I went in (last) Monday to talk to those employees, it was so difficult," he said. "There are just so many good — no, great — past and present employees, and there were so many loyal customers. Some folks have been shopping here for 50 years; one employee has worked here for over 49 years. That's what makes it so difficult."
That employee — Pat Stewart — said that in her 49-and-a-half years of service at the market, she has experienced many, many good things: "It's a wonderful company; they have always been so generous; we have had terrific benefits; the family has always been helpful and they always took care of us; and we've had so many wonderful, loyal customers."
Another employee, Geri Hadden, said she'd been working at the Comet for only about four months, but she said it was the nicest job she's ever had and that working there was like being part of one big family.
Levy said that taking care of the employees was something the family's business has always focused on.
"I hope that we were always down to earth with our employees and none of us were on a power trip," he said. "I hope they saw us as good people and saw that we really cared about them. I was never in there yelling at people. It was just people interacting. It was such a good, close-knit group.
“Every once in a while, we could sneak in and help each other out. I hope that continues, that bond. I hope to help them in this transition, too. We'll do our best to help them, whether that's helping get them placed or doing what we can to help them through this transition.”
Being a part of the business for so long, Levy said there are so many memories of his interactions with his employees that he'll always hold dear.
"All of the things that stand out to me, they weren't about being married to the grocery business," he said. "It was all about the people. I can't tell you how many times in the store I was just walking by, and I still couldn't remember where things were, as I was in my shopper mode. And the staff would harass me. That's what I remember, just the camaraderie. There were always good stories at the store."
Levy even recalled one particular memory that was one of his favorites.
"We were really packed one day, and the lady behind me was elderly, so I offered to help her take her groceries out to her vehicle," he said. "A young bag boy came in and said, 'Sir, I'm sorry, but only employees are allowed to do that.' One of the other employees told him who I was, and we had a good laugh about that one."
Levy also said that the employees won't be the only ones with whom he'll miss working and spending time.
"We certainly had some good customers who were entertaining and fun to talk to," he said. "But from all the stories they've told us, we're connected to their families too. We care about them, and we'll miss them. That's just another hard part about this transition."
With things winding down at the store, Levy said, on behalf of the family, he had some words to share with the community.
"As far as those loyal customers go, I want to thank them for their loyal patronage over the years. They just kept coming back, and they did so with a lot of kind words, and they treated my employees so well.
“As for those employees, I just can't say it enough. I want them to know I care about them very much, and I want to help them in any way I can. These are great people, and I'm just so sorry the way it ended for them."
Beginning today, the Comet will have a 20-percent discount sale on all items, excepting ones not allowed to be reduced by legal regulations. While Levy said there is no set time table for the process as it unfolds, he did say he does not anticipate a drawn-out closing. He said that as the plan unfolds, he and his family will be sure to communicate it to the community members, so they know what's going on.
So, they say that all good things must come to an end, and so many times, that's a shame.
The Comet Market in town has been a "good thing" for 50 years, and while its time has come to an end, the legacy of the Levy family and their employees will certainly live on and be a continued benefit to the town of Punxsutawney.