For 55 years, people who didn't have the money to pay for groceries got help at Fitch's IGA on Main Street in Wilmore.
Now, owner Leonard Fitch, 71, needs help keeping the grocery store open — and the community has pitched in.
Volunteers put a fresh coat of paint on the walls last week. Boy Scouts and other residents will come back Saturday to paint the outside of the store. It's all part of an effort to draw more customers so Fitch won't have to close his doors.
Fitch, who also has served on the city council in this small Jessamine County town for 42 years, is beloved in Wilmore. He's "one of the rare human beings in this world," said Mayor Harold Rainwater. "He's loved by rich people and poor people and everybody in between. He does more funerals than any preacher I've ever known."
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In February alone, six families asked Fitch to officiate at funerals, even though he is not an ordained minister.
"I think that's a testimony to how many people love him," Rainwater said. "If you didn't have money for food, Mr. Fitch would feed you. He's probably cashed more bad checks than the banks have just because people were hungry."
Fitch's store doesn't sell tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets, and it isn't open on Sundays. "That's a rarity in today's world that you could survive that long" without those things, Rainwater said.
"I just love people," said Fitch. "I try to provide an environment that they will come into and feel right at home, feel comfortable to talk with their friends and not be pushed."
When Jay Leeson, a student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, heard that Fitch was having a hard time keeping the store going, he started a community movement called Fitch's Neighbors to help him.
"We're just reciprocating Leonard Fitch's special brand of neighborliness," Leeson explained on the group's page on the social network Facebook.
Fitch's father bought the IGA in 1956, and Fitch and his brother took over in 1990. He said it has been tough running the store since his brother had a stroke two years ago.
In these difficult economic times, Fitch said, sales are lower and expenses higher than they ever have been. He has put more than $400,000 into the business in the last 10 years, but it hasn't been enough.
He had just about decided that he had no choice but to close when Leeson came along with a plan.
At first, Leeson, who had studied journalism, was just going to submit an article about Fitch to a national magazine. But then Leeson chose to address something that was bothering him. "There is an incompatibility in what we think about Leonard and how we support Leonard," he said.
Leeson heard about a Kansas State University initiative that works to save locally owned grocery stores and got some ideas from that.
In March, he wrote a letter to the Jessamine Journal and implored residents: "Those of us in Wilmore must begin to realize that the local grocer and the town" could share a mutual fate.
"Left without a grocer, we're even more likely to purchase our flowers, lunches, prescriptions, haircuts and fuel while we're up the road," he wrote. Wilmore's Main Street would reflect the old adage: "The more you spend away from home, the less you have to come home to."
"A grocery impacts the local economy and the local identity more than any one business," Leeson said in an interview Friday.
He got some donations and recruited workers, including an interior designer, to help fix up the store. Interior walls were torn down to let in more light. There's a new emphasis on daily deals and improved signs. There will be more fresh produce, locally grown, and products made in Kentucky.
As many as 50 people have helped out. Members of Boy Scout Troop 707 heard about the effort and asked if they could come Saturday to be part of a group that will paint the outside of the building.
Brian Steele, an Asbury seminary student from Orlando, Fla., said he was part of a group that recently cleaned and painted.
Steele said he helped out of respect for Leonard Fitch.
"It's very rare these days to find someone who cares more about others than he cares about himself," Steele said.
Fitch said that during the past two weeks, the store has seen the first increase in sales in more than a year.
Leeson credits Asbury students and the town's residents for the success of the movement, which he thinks could help other businesses in Wilmore.
"We don't see this ending at Fitch's store," he said. "We have every intention of promoting neighborliness down Main Street as well."