The Southern States store, a Leesburg institution on Catoctin Circle, will close June 30 as part of a company-wide restructuring, said Alexandra Schexnayder, a spokeswoman for Southern States Cooperative Inc. The Richmond-based company reported losses of $68.3 million for 2002.
The Leesburg store opened in 1934 to serve mainly as a supply store for Loudoun County farmers. Now, it also serves newly relocated suburbanites, who mingle with old-timers seeking horse feed and feed buckets as the newcomers search for garden tools, wind chimes and pet toys.
The Southern States co-op in Purcellville will remain open, as will the Southern States stores in Middleburg and Manassas and the Southern States petroleum business in Leesburg. Stores in Vienna and Herndon were among 17 that the company closed last year.
On Thursday, customers browsed for early spring plants outside the front door of the Leesburg store, checked out grass trimmers in the back and picked up a few birdhouses. They appeared surprised about, but resigned to, news that the store would soon close.
Arthur Lawrence, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, print suspenders and work pants, was buying rat poison for his Black Angus cattle farm between Leesburg and Purcellville. Although he said he does not go to Southern States regularly, he does run in for a few items now and then. He asked why the store was closing, then answered his own question:
"That's too bad. But Leesburg's changing. That's all."
Steve Ferguson, who moved to Ashburn five years ago, is part of that change. He and his two small children were shopping for a bird feeder and other items. "That's too bad it's closing," he said. "I just found out about it. I'm hoping they're open long enough so I can get my grass seed."
Schexnayder said the Leesburg store was picked to close for several reasons but would not elaborate. "Management took a look at the operations, and this was the one," she said. Southern States has 1,200 stores from Maine to the Gulf Coast.
The 23 employees of the Leesburg store will "be given every consideration for open positions within the cooperative," according to a company statement.
Carl Lindgren, a cattle farmer near Upperville, sits on the board of the Southern States Loudoun County Co-op in Purcellville, which is not owned by the corporation but by members of the independent co-op. He said the Leesburg store's closing "was a bit of a shock" but predicted that it would mean increased business for the Purcellville store.
"I don't know if it's a sign of the times with Loudoun County and a decrease in farmland," he said. "But people still have a few animals and still need horse feed."
What will happen to the store, and the land on which it sits, remains unclear. "I'm not even sure it's been listed," Schexnayder said of the property.
Stephen Cohen, vice president and general manager of Jerry's automotive group at Jerry's Ford Lincoln-Mercury, said his company had outgrown its facility on East Market Street and was "expanding in the very near future." He said he could not comment about specific sites but noted that the Southern States location was a "very attractive property."
Leesburg Southern States was one of the first stores opened after the company was founded in 1923. Anne H. Horstman, director of Dodona Manor, said Gen. George C. Marshall walked to Southern States in Leesburg in 1941, a year after he bought the manor, to buy paint for its exterior. Horstman is now working with a paint analyst to find a perfect match for Dodona's restoration.
Horstman said she was "really distressed" to hear of the store's closing. "I shop there at least once a week," she said. She buys pet food and plants and recently bought a large supply of batteries "to be ready for terrorism."
She said she will go to the store now to stock up on a marinara sauce she has come to love. "That makes me very sad to think about it."