Agway store closes its doors

THIS REGISTER CLOSED - Owner Eric Blacksone inside the Agway store in Gettysburg after the business closed its doors last week. (Jim Hale/Gettysburg Times)

Despite its deep local roots, Gettysburg's Agway store couldn't survive tectonic shifts in the agricultural and retail landscapes, owner Eric Blackstone said last week.

The end of 2015 also marked the end of the decades-old institution, which closed its doors last week.

The property at 107 N. Washington St. is up for sale. Blackstone said five potential buyers have expressed interest.

"Agriculture in Adams County has changed," said Blackstone, who acquired the store in November 2000.

"We've seen the demise of the small dairy farm," he said, and "there aren't as many small farms, period, of any kind."

The retail side "has changed dramatically as well," he said, citing "increased competition from big-box stores" like Walmart, Lowe's, and Tractor Supply Company.

Higher-end pet foods remained a "bright spot" for Agway, said Blackstone, who was continuing to order more right up to the end. However, he said, big boxes like PetSmart and Petco cut into his pet-related sales, while "grocery stores got into some of our bread and butter items" like soil and mulch.

Underlying everything, Blackstone said, was "the advent of Amazon." The rise of online commerce has hobbled brick-and-mortar stores of all types, he said, though "one of the niches we had was a willingness to do special orders."

As conditions changed, Blackstone recalibrated his merchandise mix. In addition to boosting pet lines, he said, "we backed out of some farm stuff and went a little heavier on lawn and garden and some 'gifty' items."

Nonetheless, Blackstone said, the last year for any kind of an increase in the store's business was 2008, and customer counts have declined steadily since then.

"You can't raise prices enough to replace five to seven percent of your customers every year," Blackstone said.

In early November, he said, he made up his mind to close, "and once I made the decision, I wanted it done. That's kind of how I am."

Dec. 30 was the last day Agway was open to the public, and it was one of the busiest days in a long time, Blackstone said. A few more customers dribbled in on Dec. 31, he said, and he is seeking out buyers to take on the remaining merchandise as a whole.

As the closing date approached, Blackstone said, he offered increasingly deep discounts on most items, resulting in sales that were "really good right up to Christmas."

The store employed 10 or 11 people at its peak, he said, but at the end it was just him, Diana Yingling, and C.J. Alexander.

Blackstone said he isn't sure about next steps yet, either for himself or the property.

As for the 0.8-acre site, he said, "there's a lot of interest" and "I don't think I'll have trouble selling it."

"It's an excellent spot," he said, confessing that he has always suspected a store might not be the location's natural best use. "It's begging to be a restaurant," he said.

The original western part of the building went up in the 1920s and has always housed agriculture-related entities, including an egg cooperative and the Adams County Farm Bureau, Blackstone said. The taller eastern portion was added in the 1950s as a mill that processed grain and other ingredients into animal feed, he said, noting that a siding from the adjoining railroad tracks once served the facility.

All in all, Blackstone said, the building comprises about 12,000 usable square feet, including "sheds cobbled on" as well as basements.

"I haven't had time to digest how big a job it's going to be to clear out 80 years' worth of stuff," Blackstone said, adding that some items have been sitting in the same spots at least since he first began working in the building some 35 years ago.

He began at the Agway store in 1980, starting out as a warehouse helper with no clue that he would end up owning the place.

Blackstone has lived here since eighth grade, when his dad secured a job with the Lincoln Insurance Group and moved the family from Martinsburg in the Altoona area.

Blackstone graduated from Gettysburg High School and went on to Penn State Mont Alto. There, he said he earned an associate's degree in forest technology but found that the field offered few jobs paying a living wage.

As a result, he worked for a time at the Shaffer Brothers sporting goods and auto parts store formerly located on South Franklin Street in Gettysburg, and in the local orchard industry.

That ended when his father learned that an acquaintance of his, Agway manager Charlie Rohrbaugh, was looking for help. Blackstone got the job and was soon accepted into Agway's management training program. He said he completed a year's training here, learning everything from "soup to nuts," and gaining at least some familiarity with all the various types of farming then being practiced locally.

After his training, Blackstone became manager of in-store merchandise here and eventually succeeded Rohrbaugh upon the latter's retirement.

It was a time of transition.

Agway's top management made farm-related operations into a separate business. Here, that meant feed operations were moved to a facility along U.S. Route 30 east of town. The store on North Washington was no longer part of a business generating $2.5 million annually, Blackstone said, but instead had become a concern one fifth that size.

Later, Agway, which had begun as a farmer-owned cooperative, began selling off pieces of itself, including the Gettysburg store to Blackstone in 2000. By about 2003, he said, the Agway corporation was bankrupt and no longer in the picture.

Now Blackstone finds himself in another period of change, and isn't sure yet how it will shake out.

But one thing remains solid: the support of his wife Donna Blackstone, whom he married in 1980. She has held a federal position over the decades and laughingly said that her sole role in the Agway venture was to sign whatever paperwork Eric asked her to sign.

"There are a lot of good memories here," he said Thursday, looking around at shelves that were mostly empty in a quiet store.

He said he'll miss "the people, the regular customers who have been shopping here for a long time and supporting us. I hope they'll remember a good place to shop and good people working hard to do a good job of giving them the best customer service they could provide."

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