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End of another era
April 11, 2018

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In 1996, the WinnDixie closed its doors and took down its signs at 2545 Estero Boulvard.

Photos of the closing were published in the July 3, 1996 issue of the Observer, calling the store's closure the end of an era.

Fort Myers Beach has reached the end of another grocery era: Topps Supermarket, will close after 22 years of operation in the old WinnDixie site.

As the only grocery store on the north end of the island, Topps was utilized by vacationers and locals alike. Many bicyclists can be seen going home with the signature yellow grocery bags hanging from their handlebars.

But it's been more than a store: it's been a 22-year era of high schoolers' first employment, family owned business and post-hurricane relief.

"The locals supported us from day one," David Carney, the owner, said.

David grew up in the grocery business, starting out as a 14-year-old cleaning up in the meat department in Hamburg, New York, to owning his first store in Punta Gorda.

While he was in Punta Gorda, he said a man came to his store and told David he needed to see the former WinnDixie site in Fort Myers Beach.

"Everyone comes to you with brilliant ideas, but I came down to see it," he said. "And I had to do it."

David said at the time, Florida was a little behind the times in the grocery business. WinnDixie was focused on building "monster" stores, instead of focusing on smaller locations that could be successful.

It wasn't an easy road for the Carney family. David described himself as "starving" at the time, and not in a financial position to acquire a new store.

"I didn't have nothing. It took $500,000 in credit cards, at 18 percent interest," Carney said.

He was convinced he and his wife Deborah would have to file for bankruptcy multiple times, but they survived.

David learned the art of the deal in the grocery business. There were times where he had to negotiate with everyone to stay afloat.

The deals started even at the beginning: while WinnDixie typically would remove the store equipment, he convinced the corporation to sell it to him instead for $150,000. That sounds like a lot, but it was significantly less than the cost of buying everything new. They had to open quick - just two week later - so they could make some money to live on, he said.

"We've been through a lot of wars, business-wise," he said. "I'm very good at surviving."

Even the name of the store was a tactic to save money. Carney had grown up working for Tops Friendly Markets, an entirely separate chain in the northeastern area of the county. He figured, it was successful at the time - and they couldn't sue him if he added an extra a "p."

"I wanted a short name because, honest, I couldn't afford a longer one," he said. "All those letters cost money."

Topps was able to succeed because of its prime location, and its niche market.

The Carneys raised their two sons, Jay and David, in the store. Jay still works there full time.

"Customers watched me grow up. It's one big family, that's how we treat it," Jay said.

He started working at the store when he was 18, starting with helping to train new employees. He's seen the 14-year-olds he trained come back in with their own kids now, he said.

Darcy Olbrich and her two older brothers, Todd and Dustin, all worked at the store as teenagers. Darcy said she started when she was 14, and now she's 29. When she started, Todd would sometimes make her breakfast from the deli in the mornings, where he worked. She said the store's closing is really heartbreaking.

"It was a very family-oriented store," she said. "The store was always a big part in my family. We could always walk in and know everyone there."

She recently went back to the store to say a heartfelt goodbye to some of the employees who still work there.

A few weeks ago, some of the employees organized a get together, too.

The store manager, Joe Minehan, and multiple other employees have been with the Carneys since they opened Topps. That's part of what makes closing so hard, David (senior) said.

"I kept it for the kids and the employees," he said.

Topps isn't closing by choice; the store had a lease with the property owners with the option to renew. The owner is an agent for the Kaul Trust, which is related to the Kaul Company, an apartment developer. No one with this company could be reached in time for publication.

The site owner took away the option to renew, thus ending Topps' lease for the building. Carney said he wanted to buy the property, but said the Kaul Company has "bigger plans."

Originally the Carneys planned to shut down May 1, but David thinks it could be as early as next week. All this week is a 50 percent off sale (except beer and cigarettes).

Helping others out has always been part of Topps business plan - and closing is no exception. Whatever might be left over will be donated to local charities, David said.

After hurricanes, Topps always tried to open its doors as soon as possible, usually giving out water for free, and helping care for those hit on the island.

And if someone was hungry, they could come in for a sandwich.

"That's what we always said, don't steal from us. We'll give you a sandwich," David said. "We tried to take care of anybody."

The Fort Myers Beach Little League always benefited from Topps generosity, umpire and former president Charlie Whitehead said. The San Carlos Island resident has been a loyal Topps customer since it opened.

"I'm gonna miss Topps," Whitehead said. "I prefer to give my money to mom and pops stores."

Any time the Little League needed supplies, the store was "always good to Little League." It's the kind of easy generosity unattainable from a corporate store that has to call in for permission.

The store got an outcry of dismay, and support, when it announced its closure.

"It's sad," Jay Carney said. "I'll miss the customers who treat me like family."

He said he, and his family, always wanted to be sure people who came in weren't treated like a number, and really be the "beach store."

Jay's not sure what's next for him. He lives out in Alva near David and Deborah, with his wife Jessica and children Gracie and Jackson. David Jr. teaches full time, but often worked at the store, and is married to Nicole with children David and Savannah.

Although David Sr. hoped to keep the beach store for his kids and grandkids, he's not too worried about his boys: they're good people and they'll land on their feet, he said. At one time, David owned four stores in Florida. He sold the last one off and has the money for his kids.

As for himself, at 65, he's not sure he's done yet. He said Deborah's ready to retire, but he "can't sit at home for one day."

"I say, don't count me out yet," he said. "I don't think I'm ready to go to the wasteland yet."

He lives out in Alva on some acreage and with some dogs; he'll have to find something to keep his mind busy, he said.

As for the beach, the Carneys are thankful for the support the local community has given their business.

"The future holds a lot for the beach. It needs it," David said. "But they can't let the locals disappear."

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