Patricia A. Miller

Ocean View

Farewell to an Ocean County tradition It looked like business as usual at the General Stores Unlimited on Brick Boulevard last week. The wall outside the Brick Township landmark was studded with Easter wreaths and other signs of spring.

But once inside, it was glaringly obvious that things had changed.

The massive, old-fashioned glass candy cases, once home to fudge, licorice twists, malted milk balls and jelly rings, were up for sale. So was the Wurlitzer jukebox.

“I can be yours if the offer sounds right,” a sign on the candy case read. “Make us an offer we can’t refuse.”

Last Thursday was the calm before the weekend storm of bargains. Longtime owner Alex Amodio decided to hold a “retirement sale” last Saturday and Sunday, with prices trimmed 50 to 70 percent.

Inside, the mood was a little somber. Customers who had shopped at the store for much of its three decades came in to pick up some last purchases and say goodbye to those behind the cash registers.

“Thanks for all your help all these years,” one woman said to a cashier.

“Half my life,” the cashier replied.

Toms River resident Roger Latham was buying “stuff, a lot of stuff.”

“I’m gonna miss this place and Joan,” he said, referring to the woman who manned the busy courtesy counter. “Where else can you come in and hear Frank Sinatra? You can’t find a place that has the variety this store has.”

Joan, who declined to give her last name, owned up to having been at the store “for quite awhile.”

“Almost since day one,” she said. “He’s been a super boss, a super person.”

Amodio decided it was time to retire, after 32 years in business, she said.

“All good things come to an end,” Joan said.

Amodio started the business with the goal of providing quality merchandise at a good price.

“I come from a blue-collar family,” he said Monday. “I believe there should be no

bull—- running a business. Give the consumer a good value every day and change it every day. I’ve kept that philosophy going until now.”

His first advertisement back in 1974 was a 21-ounce can of Ajax for 12 cents. But word of mouth about the store was so positive for the last 15 years, Amodio didn’t even have to advertise.

“The majority of the public was content in what they bought and what they paid for it,” he said. “I was able to pay my employees and my inventory. I was happier than a pig in you know what.”

But the seven-day a week, 15-hour days finally caught up with him.

“I knew it was time,” he said. “I’m really tired.”

The closing is bittersweet for Edna Phelps, who has been the store’s buyer for many years.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said. “But I know the owner wanted to retire. We had our day in the sun.”

The store, which opened on Sept. 13, 1974, currently has 22 employees. But in its heyday, the roster numbered 108 full- and part-time workers and was open seven days and five nights a week, Phelps said.

But Amodio decided to close the store at night after it became more difficult to find good help during the evening hours.

“We were always busiest on weekends,” Phelps said. “A lot of people work during the day. They had no choice but to shop Saturday and Sunday.”

General Stores Unlimited had quite a run.

The store was like no other. It stood out in a town dotted with Targets, Kmarts and too many other mind-numbing superstores with no personality.

The store was really a number of cozy shops housed in a single building. If you wanted a bargain on Pfaltzgraff stoneware, you could find it here, in the room with the squeaky wooden floor. Department 56 villages, lit against a snowy backdrop, were off in another room

Snowbabies, Beanie Babies, Boyds bears, shoes, garlic presses, talking bottle openers, tablecloths, napkins, pots, pans, specialty spices, candles, clothes, shirts, jackets, dresses, Wigwam socks, night lights, Hummel and Byers figurines. If you needed it, chances are General Stores had it at a discounted price.

“Our prices were good enough to begin with prior to the sale,” Phelps said.

The center of the store was devoted to nautical items, not surprising for a business so close to the ocean. A salmon-colored crab tealight holder was going for $1.99 last week.

The displays changed with the seasons.

Fall brought pumpkins, potpourri, witches and goblins. Christmas was Phelp’s favorite time. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and other holiday favorites played in a neverending loop over the store’s public address system. The windows on the second floor had Christmas displays that twinkled in the December chill and rivaled big city stores.

“I loved it,” she said. “I loved Christmas. I was so excited.”

Toms River resident Judy Meltzer can remember back to when the store opened in the early 1970s.

“I love the browsing, the atmosphere, the unusual things they have here,” she said. “It’s a shame. It’s such a nice comfortable, old-fashioned atmosphere. Duh. It’s a general store.”

Brick resident Lois Mathis knew the store was going to close a while ago. But that didn’t make one of her last trips any easier.

“I just like to look around at different things,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for years. It’s going to be missed.”

Township Clerk Virginia Lampman, a longtime customer, was upset to learn the store she had frequented for 25 years was set to close.

“I’m going to miss it a lot,” she said. “You could always find a good gift. I love that store.”

Amodio could not find a buyer who wanted to continue the business. So he plans to sell the 20,000-square-foot-building to Sixth Avenue Electronics.

The real estate closing is slated for April 2. Several customers told Amodio they plan to make novenas so the deal falls through.

The store will close its doors forever on April 20. Customers waited in a line that snaked around the building on Saturday and Sunday. Brick police were on hand to help with crowd control. No more than 145 people are allowed in the building because of fire regulations.

Good luck, Mr. Amodio. Thank you, for an Ocean County tradition.

Patricia A. Miller is a staff writer for Greater Media Newspapers.