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Man Fights To Keep Eastport Grocery Store Open

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By ELISHA SAUERS

The Capital of Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The shelves and fridges are bare, and Little Debbie and Tastykake deliveries aren’t due until later this week.

Albert Harris, the owner of Sanky’s since his grandmother Dorothy Ross died seven months ago, doesn’t have flavor syrups for the snowball machine that usually would run almost constantly.

Instead, a few children resort to filling their cups with plain ice chips. He has reordered supplies, but Harris is scraping change together to stock the store.

When old customers walk into the nearly 40-year-old Eastport institution, it’s hard not to notice how the store is suffering.

But the children who rely on Sanky’s for after-school treats may not know why the box of chocolate bars is empty.

“Oh, my kids were getting mad at me,” Harris said. “How can the candy store be out of candy? Out of snowballs? But I’ve got to do the best I can with what I got.”

Harris, 38, has shouldered the responsibility not only of running Sanky’s, the popular pink grocery store on Monroe Street, but trying to fill the big shoes his grandmother, who most knew as Miss Dot, left behind. People called her a pillar of the community, helping her customers’ families with burial expenses, diapers and rent when times were tight. She kept business going seamlessly after her husband, Charles “Sanky” Ross, died in 2005.

Most never knew that Ross had troubles of her own.

As the executor of her estate, Harris soon learned she had lapsed on her life insurance payments since 2006. The family wasn’t able to recover any funds from her policy, so the $12,000 funeral expenses had to come out of pocket.

There were lapses on utility bills, quarterly business taxes, vendor bills and mortgages. Ross owned three properties — the store, her home across the street and a rental house — all of which still are being paid off. One is in a reverse mortgage. When Harris adds everything up, he thinks he’s saddled with about $60,000 of debt.

It’s so much financial pressure, he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep Sanky’s — and his grandmother’s legacy — alive.

“She was a pillar in the community; I’m just a beam in the pillar’s spot,” Harris said.

Sanky’s is a place where folks on nearby streets and the Harbour House community come to hang out, get a quick snack or a beer in a brown paper sack to go. The customers know one another’s names and take a minute to gossip. Harris smiles big and greets them at the door, the way his grandparents did.

When a lady sat her toddler on the counter as she checked out last week, Harris handed the little girl his calculator to play with.

“There you go, Mamas,” he said, then asked the toddler in a concerned voice if she had the hiccups as she mashed the buttons.

The same evening, a customer with tired eyes didn’t have to say anything without prompting Harris to rise up from his chair and reach over the counter to give her a long embrace.

“He was your cousin?” Harris asked. The woman nodded and told him how her family was coping with a recent death.

Harris is pouring his own money into the business. He used his tax return to buy alcohol stock for the store. When that sold out, the profits went to paying other bills. The revenue is going out the door almost as quickly as it’s coming in, he said.

Beyond that, Harris has his own financial problems. Because of his personal credit history, banks have turned him down for loans.

Some people are trying to help Harris — be there for him the way his grandmother was for them. Last week a man carried a few cases of Sprite into the store and put them in the refrigerator. They were a favor from a friend who likes to shop with coupons.

Ross often subsidized the store with personal money and Social Security checks, family said.

Andrea Kautz, a childhood friend of Harris, said Ross ran the store on IOUs and didn’t keep a computerized inventory.

“She was headstrong until the day she passed away,” Kautz said. “She didn’t ask for help.”

But Harris doesn’t blame his grandmother for the situation, nor does he want to let her down by closing the store. He’s reached out to agencies with small business resources and has sought advice from mentors.

In the course of two hours, Norma Paddy, a 30-year Harbour House resident, made two stops at Sanky’s: one to get a few snacks and cigarettes, another for a blue sports drink.

“What would we do without Sanky’s?” Paddy asked. “Sanky’s been here way before me, and I’ve been here a long time.”

Lovell Spencer, another longtime neighbor and customer, said the thought of losing the store in the community worries him.

“People are gonna feel it,” he said. “Come down here and chit-chat, get advice. Yeah, people really gonna feel it.”

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md. http://www.hometownannapolis.com

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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