WILKES-BARRE — Sheldon Block looked around his emptying Outlet Army Navy Store and talked about his 45 years in business.
And then he saw Santo Lafoca, the man who has worked at his side for 38 of those years at the South Main Street landmark. Block began to choke up.
“You better come here, Santo,” he said. “I’m going to need you here for this.”
Block, 65, has decided to call it quits, announcing he will close the store and retire. It’s a decision he made some time ago, but took several months to enact. The going-out-of-business sale should last about two to three weeks, he said.
Block and his late father have owned and operated the store at 113 S. Main for 45 years. Block had a list of things he wanted to say, but midway through it, when it came time to talk about his going-out-of-business sale, he got emotional.
“In 45 years, I’ve seen everything in the downtown,” Block said. “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Block said the store has survived fires and floods, selling items like boot and clothing lines such as Carhartt, Dickies, Carolina and Levi’s. Other merchandise specializes in security and self-defense with stun guns and pepper spray, and Block carries camping and military items, along with hats and gloves, and other cold-weather gear.
When the store opened in 1969, it was the height of the hippie movement and Block said he sold more jeans as an individual operation than any other.
“It was the Vietnam/love generation,” he recalled. “We had high school and college kids in here all the time, in addition to regular working people.”
But Block said, the years went by and the country’s economy declined to the point where households no longer had the same amount of disposable income.
“I guess you can say this area became economically challenged,” he said. “And joblessness leads to despair. People are living from paycheck to paycheck.”
Block said the city has seen an influx of “criminal element” types.
“Don’t get me wrong, the police do the best they can,” Block said. “But they have a difficult job to do.”
So now Block will complete his sale, clean out his inventory. Bell Furniture will expand and turn the store into a leather gallery/showroom.
Jim Bellezza, owner of Bell next door at 95 S. Main St., purchased the building that houses the Outlet Army Navy Store for $159,000 on Jan. 3. An empty lot separates the two buildings, and Bellezza plans to renovate the building and expand his business.
Block and Bellezza are friends. Bellezza said he hopes to have the building renovated and his new space open by the end of the year.
Block said he intends to vacation — he wants to visit every Major League Baseball ballpark. He’ll increase his tee times at local golf courses and he will relax.
Lafoca said he will first take a “nice rest,” before increasing his visits to the opera and taking a few small trips.
Block pointed to a “Going Out of Business” sign that was behind the counter waiting to be hung.
“We already started the sale,” he said. “But I just can’t seem to put that sign up.”
The store is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
More vibrant times
Block remembers the good old days when retail stores lined South Main Street for blocks on both sides starting at Public Square. He mentioned John B. Stetz, Blum Brothers, The Kiddie Shop, The Hub and Bartikowsky’s as a few of the great stores in the downtown.
Block thanked all of his loyal customers, and he said Internet sales have hurt small “brick-and-mortar” businesses such as his. Block’s father, Joseph, sold the business to Sheldon in 1982. Lafoca came on board around 1976, taking the job as a temporary stop until he found something else. He never left.
“If he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have been here all these years,” Block said of Lafoca.
Joe Annella, a longtime customer and friend of the two men, said the store closing is sad.
“These are good people, they offered rock-bottom prices and they were always friendly,” he said.
The three men were crying as the reality of the approaching last day came over them.
“We had a good run,” Block said. “It’s time to move on and have some years to enjoy retirement. I sure don’t want to die here.”