Jessamine County

Wilmore fundraiser tries to help improve the town's longtime grocery store

Fitch's IGA, just off of Main Street in Wilmore. The Fitch family has owned the store for decades. A fundraiser was held Saturday to help raise $50,000 to replace a bank of freezers in the store.
Fitch's IGA, just off of Main Street in Wilmore. The Fitch family has owned the store for decades. A fundraiser was held Saturday to help raise $50,000 to replace a bank of freezers in the store. Herald-Leader

WILMORE — Business seemed slow at the Fitch's IGA Saturday. There was a single cashier on duty as shoppers strolled slowly through the well-stocked, mostly empty aisles.

The store has the real vintage feel that hipsters try to mimic. There are old black and white family photos as decorations. A mess of fresh onions is displayed in a plain metal grocery cart. Instead of a rack featuring tabloid magazines or Cosmopolitan offering tips for the best sex ever, in Fitch's there is a shelf labeled "News Stand Inspirational/Family Reading." They sell no cigarettes.

Owner Leonard Fitch, 75, was sitting at one of the small tables just outside the deli kitchen where he'd been cooking chicken. He offered a visitor a cup-size sample of just-baked broccoli casserole as a way of saying hello.

He is gracious but worn. It's been a bad year after a series of bad years. It's the hardest summer he's had since the family came to Wilmore in 1956. (A year commemorated by a fading mural of a red and white 1956 Chevy high on a wall.)

Fitch was ready to close shop in 2011 when the community rallied to help his business stay open.

Fitch said that support made him feel like George Bailey in the classic Christmas movie It's A Wonderful Life.

George Bailey is convinced he's failed his town until they come to his support.

"If you watch the story, he was really depressed and couldn't see sunlight. The town got behind him," said Fitch, with tears in his eyes.

Fitch has watched the movie again and again. He sees himself in the man who struggles but not so much in the man who gives so much to others.

If you have something that people need, he said, it's simple. You share.

He likes that line in It's a Wonderful Life at the end: "No man is a failure who has friends."

Over the last decade Fitch's family has put in about $400,000 to keep the grocery store open. And, Fitch said with a weary tone, "we are still in the red."

Why not leave a money-losing proposition? Why not just walk away?

Fitch, 75, gets a few more tears in his eyes.

"It's the people. I love these people. Their lives are my life."

"I feel great when I help somebody."

Although not a preacher, Fitch is often asked to officiate at funerals, which he takes as a compliment.

Past upgrades of the store included remodeling and stocking products to draw the students of nearby Asbury University. Inside the old-school IGA is a rack devoted to Fair Trade items, which are created in a way that promotes sustainable crops and splits profits with the farmers or producers.

On Saturday, a second wave of support was underway at the Fitch's Fundraising Festival in Wilmore Downtown Green, a grassy park a few blocks away.

Celebrity chef/organizer Joe Arvin, a hometown boy, was hoping to raise $50,000 to replace a bank of freezers that are useless since a compressor blew. All summer long, if someone wanted something that used to be in those freezers Fitch's employees would have to fetch it from the walk-in freezer in the back.

Arvin, busy assembling sandwiches with slaw for a steady line of customers on Saturday, pointed in the direction of the train tracks that slice through Wilmore. "If you look down the street there you can see my house. The Fitches took care of the entire town, and they took care of my family."

His family struggled, he said, but "the Fitches would deliver groceries. They would leave a tab and didn't care when or if they were paid."

Arvin said whenever his Dad got money, the first bill he would cover was at Fitch's IGA. Arvin said his neighbors benefitted from the same generous credit system. Arvin said he thinks Leonard Fitch probably saved some lives over the years.

So when Arvin heard about the compressor, he wanted to help. He put the fundraiser together with the help of Leonard's nephew, John Fitch, an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University. He secured donations for the food and got others to recruit vendors and entertainment. It came together mostly on Facebook.

The contrast between the store and the fundraising festival couldn't have been more marked.

At the festival there were vendors and a car show and Arvin whipping out fancy beef-tip sandwiches topped with Fuji apple slaw. Arvin was as loud and boisterous as Fitch is quiet and reserved.

Arvin said he hoped to raise $10,000 in food sales alone since all the supplies were donated. There is also a Go-Fund campaign trying to raise $100,000 for new freezer equipment and other improvements.

Fitch said he doesn't need anywhere near that much and plans on giving some of the donated money to the family of a sick friend who has been struggling with hospital bills.

After he left the deli and hung up his IGA apron, he drove his prized red 2003 Corvette slowly through the streets before gingerly, precisely, backing into a parking space.

The car was a gift from a friend.

The license plate that came with the extravagant present?

"GBaley".

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