Leon’s Thriftway May be the Oldest Black-owned Grocery Store in the United States

A shopper at Leon’s Thriftway leaned close to a sack of potatoes.

Sure could use some, holiday weekend and all. But the woman had come on a bus and used a cane.

Too much lugging on a hot day.

But Leashell Jackson left with those potatoes. Riding in style. A fine pickup with air conditioning, and she doesn’t even have that in her house.

Driving was “Mr. Leon” himself. He’s 90 and still comes to work every day to the old store in Kansas City, Mo. Last fall, he almost closed the place down.

But that didn’t happen because Leon Stapleton, who fought off racism, poverty and competition from big, fancy supermarkets to become the owner of what might be the country’s oldest black-owned grocery store, gave in to a neighborhood.

People depend on this place. The store can be busy when the parking lot is mostly empty because many shoppers walk or ride the bus. That’s why they come the next day too. Or even later the same day.

They don’t buy more than they can carry.

Many of them – or their mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother – worked there at some point. Generations of families have shopped there.

That’s why everyone smiles when they see Mr. Leon, who got the place after a Molotov cocktail crashed through the window during the 1968 riots when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Nobody wanted it after that.

And nearly half a century later, Leon’s Thriftway stands as a crisp green oasis in Kansas City’s food desert. When times are lean, shoppers might get a little credit or even a free bag of groceries if Stapleton knows you, and he knows pretty much everybody who comes through the door.

Loyal customers, he says. Just not enough of them.

“I was ready to quit last fall, but nobody wanted me to,” Stapleton said. “I thought it was time. You know what those big new stores look like now.

“This place is a peanut stand.”

Adeina Thomas doesn’t see it that way. She’s 41 and says she’s been shopping there for 41 years.

“I was coming in here when I was in my mama’s belly,” she said. “Mr. Leon watched me grow up. And he got on me when I acted bad.

“To this day, he talks to me like I’m one of his kids.”

All seven of Stapleton’s children worked there. Some still do. Same for 23 grandchildren, including Stevan August, who runs the liquor department.

“I’m pretty sure when you go into one of the big grocery chains, they don’t give you a ride home if it’s raining,” he said. “Happens all the time here. That’s the way my grandfather has run this place all these years, and that’s why it’s still here.”

Not that working for Grandpa is easy.

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SOURCE: Star-Telegram, Donald Bradley

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