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An Iconic Black-Owned Grocery In Kansas City Closes

Michelle Tyrene Johnson
KCUR 89.3
The last week of business for Leon's Thriftway that was located at the Seven Oaks strip mall.

Tony Ross lives in the small town of Peculiar, Missouri, now, but he was shopping at Leon’s Thriftway on East 39th Street days before the grocery business shut its doors for good.

Ross was shopping for his mother who lives in a nearby senior living facility.

“My mom is devastated. We all devastated,” Ross said. “There’s just a lot of history about this store."

After 51 years in business, Leon’s Thriftway closed over the weekend.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Leon Stapleton is retiring after 71 years in the grocery store business.

Leon Stapleton believes his store was one of the longest-lasting black-owned grocery stores in the country. Stories that opened after his are all closed now, too, and he thinks he knows why.

“You want me to tell the truth? No support,” Leon Stapleton says.

Leon’s Thriftway opened in 1968 in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.

Vernon Stapleton, Leon’s oldest son, ran the store in recent years, and says national tragedy paved the way for local opportunity.

“After the riots, they allowed blacks to get (small business) loans to get in business. It probably wouldn’t have happened had Martin Luther King not got killed,” says Vernon Stapleton.

They've rented the property where the store is all these years. Vernon says he hopes he can find someone with the capital to buy the whole strip mall, and come back with a store than can compete with bigger, newer, more up-to-date stores.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Vernon Stapleton, closing out the family business where he has worked since he was a kid.

Vernon, now 62, says his memories of the store go back to when he was 11 years old and started working there.

This was a family business, Vernon says, with several family members working at the store at any given time. His mother was also part of the business until she died a few years ago.

“My daddy had seven kids and all of us, this was our first job.” 

He says the real competition isn’t with other stores but with changing expectations. Leon's hasn't been updated since 1980. It’s an old fashioned place with no fresh seafood or prepared foods.

“Everything’s old fashioned. It’s like from 'That '70s Show' or something. It needs to be redone, re-imagined, a whole lot of re’s in there,” Vernon Stapleton says.

For many residents in the community, Vernon Stapleton says that Leon’s has served as a general store. Especially for those who do not have cars.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Tony Ross shops for sales in the meat section at Leon's Thriftway in the store's final days.

“A lot of black people don’t use banks for some reason. They would rather come pay a small fee for a check cashing service, pay their lights, gas and water here. It’s a one-stop shop,” he says.

Beth Low-Smith of the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition says that lack of transportation to grocery stores is concerning. The east side neighborhood where Leon's was located is an area with many low-income residents who don’t have the access and options that other neighborhoods have, Low-Smith says.

“The further from a store that one lives, the more challenging it becomes to access it, particularly for people who don’t have reliable transportation of their own,” says Low-Smith.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Willa Sutton visited Leon's Thriftway a couple of times a week.

Willa Sutton shopped at Leon's Thriftway two to three times a week since the store first opened.

“I go to other stores but this is my favorite one ‘cause I can always find what I need right here,” says Sutton.

Pig ears and pig's feet, for example, are among the delicacies that she could always find at Leon’s.

“There’s everything here. I’ve always loved it coming here, and I’m going to miss it very much,” she says.

Vernon Stapleton says the family owns a liquor store next door that will remain open as well as a laundromat in the Seven Oaks strip mall.

He hopes to make this the start of a new era.

“I’m focusing on closing, but I’m not focused on closing for good,” Vernon Stapleton says. “I don’t have any quit in me and nor do my sisters, daughter, even my father.”

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at michelle@kcur.org.

Michelle is a reporter covering race, identity and culture and is an assistant talk show producer.
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