LEHMAN TWP. — Pictures of NASCAR driver Jimmy Spencer hang on the wall of Cook’s Variety Store, next to photographs of local hunters and their trophies, local Cub Scouts, Lake-Lehman School District cheerleaders and other school sports teams.
The photos were acquired over the 44 years Ken and Charlene Cook owned and operated the corner store that offered everything from groceries to clothing, boots and so much more.
The wall speaks volumes of the commitment the Cooks have for their community.
So when the couple announced plans to retire, customers voiced their appreciation and support for the family that became a big part of their everyday life.
“They will be missed,” Lehman Township resident John Corbett said.
The Cooks will hold a retirement party from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12 at Cook’s Variety Store at 1201 Mountain View Dr. to express their gratitude to their patrons.
“We hope to see our customers, new and old, to say goodbye,” Charlene said.
Cook’s Variety Store, also known as the ‘Lehman Mall,’ was a place to make friendships, conduct business, strengthen the community bonds and enjoy a hang out spot.
Charlene said a small group of fellows and one dog have formed the Coffee Club, Greeter Club and Petunia Club. The men sit on the stores’ front porch in all kinds of weather and greet customers, she said.
“We have seen them sit in zero-degree weather with a blanket or 90-degree weather,” Charlene said. “George, Bella, Billy, Tony, Gene, Bob and Louisiana Daniel will surely be missed by everyone that waves to them in the morning.”
Years ago, the Cooks gave two women an opportunity to earn extra money by selling homemade fudge.
“One used the money she made to help pay for her daughter’s college education,” she said.
Over the years, the couple supported many charitable ventures, including helping the Lake-Lehman Summer Food Program acquire groceries at a discount.
The program provides five breakfasts and five lunches to children of financially-stressed Lake-Lehman School District families.
Ken and Charlene started their entrepreneurial endeavor in their early 20s. The young couple bought the 125-year-old building from Rodney and Carol Schmig in 1973.
The building was built in 1848 as a store but, at one point, housed a second-floor dance hall, Charlene said.
When they purchased the property, a half gallon of milk sold for 79 cents, a loaf of bread was 47 cents, a candy bar was five cents and a pack of cigarettes was 50 cents, she said.
Ken manned the store while Charlene stayed home with her daughters.
When their children became older, Charlene joined Ken in the store while their children played in the back of the building.
“We celebrated many birthdays and anniversaries at the store because that is where we could all be together,” she said.
Over the years, the couple added services such as fresh-made-to-order sandwiches, work boots and clothing.
“Our hoagie business started when they were building Lehman-Jackson Elementary School,” Charlene said. “We had sandwich orders lined up and had to prepare them quickly because many customers only had a half hour for lunch.”
“There was a profit to sell clothing,” Ken said. “We sold Carhartt for about 40 years.”
The decision to retire was tough for the couple.
The topic is still quite sensitive and, when they discuss it, emotions rise and turn their eyes red and watery.
“This past year it (business) has gotten to be too much,” Ken, 67, said, adding it is getting harder to unload the grocery trucks.
The business was a labor of love that included more good memories than bad for the couple.
For example, Charlene, 66, remembered a few years ago a man stop in to pay for tobacco he stole as a child.
The story of a missing garden gnome still makes her smile.
A garden gnome was taken from its spot in Lehman Center, she said.
“Someone borrowed it for a couple of years,” Charlene said. “It came back with a note telling us all the places it traveled.”
Charlene promised the couple would not disappear like the gnome.
“Everyone wants to know what we are going to do after retirement,” she said. “We are looking forward to family dinners and spending time with our grandchildren and daughters.”
Cook’s Variety Store will remain open at least until the end of August.
“Cook’s Store will continue for a little longer so you can still come in and get your favorite sandwich or hoagie,” Charlene said.
The couple will hold a going-out-of-business sale throughout August, she said.
“Ken and I thank you for your patronage, loyalty and friendship,” Charlene said.
As for the three-story mustard yellow landmark — a new owner will determine the building’s future.