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Updated: 10/23/2008 - 4:12 AM

Hometown proud: George Walsh
Store owner looks to retirement but sees an Island IGA always
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George himself outside the store he's run for three decades.
Greg Burt photo
If you've heard rumors that the IGA is for sale and were wondering what might take its place — a giant Food Emporium, perhaps — relax. If George Walsh has his way, our familiar IGA is here to stay, with maybe just a few improvements.

The store and property are in fact for sale. After more than 30 years, George wants to retire and spend more quality time with his family. He's looking for a buyer who'll keep the store an IGA and make some needed upgrades. But, he says, the recent downturn in the economy has made the prospect of an immediate sale look remote. If he doesn't find a qualified buyer he approves of, George says he'll make the improvements himself. Those would include an expanded deli section, more specialty items for us “foodies” and some other changes, but nothing too dramatic or scary. George knows his Shelter Island.

In the mid-seventies, George's father ran a small grocery store on the Island, which he'd owned and operated for 30 years. When the senior Walsh began to have health problems, George came here to help, to either sell the place or possibly take it over and expand the operation. He didn't have any grocery store experience at the time. In fact, he'd done just about everything but.

As an officer in the Navy, George worked for Special Services in Pearl Harbor in charge of sports and entertainment programs, where he got to meet celebrities like Elvis and “Lonesome George” Gobel. After the Navy, he joined the old Gertz company, went through their management training program and got involved in opening new stores, including one in Bayshore. He worked for Allstate Insurance as a claims adjustor and for Management Recruiters specializing in insurance and banking personnel. One of his biggest customers in those days was the recently fallen giant, AIG. At the time George came to Shelter Island to help with his father's store, another business reversal was unfolding that would open a window of opportunity for him and create the Island's IGA.

In 1977, the store on Route 114 that is now George's IGA was one of the last Bohack's supermarkets. If you're not very old, you may never have been inside of a Bohack's or even heard the name, but there was a time when they were all over the place. According to an old Newsday article, “In their heyday in the thirties and forties, Bohack stores blanketed Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens.” By 1939, there were 740 stores. H. C. Bohack, the founder, had died in 1931 but his family held onto to the business until 1965, when it was sold to outside buyers. For a while the chain belonged to Daitch Shopwell, which is now Food Emporium, but by 1977, when George Walsh was sizing up the grocery store needs of Shelter Island, the last Bohack stores closed, including the one that he then bought and turned into the IGA.

If you think that IGA is a little, old-fashioned, small-town grocery store chain, you are mistaken. It's anything but. According to its website, “IGA is the world's largest voluntary supermarket network with aggregate worldwide retail sales of more than $21 billion per year. The alliance includes more than 4,000 Hometown Proud Supermarkets in 44 of the United States and more than 40 countries, commonwealths and territories on all six inhabited continents.” Wow! And it still manages to feel like your “hometown” grocer. At least, ours does. George says that out west there are IGA stores that run to 87,000 square feet.

For more than 30 years now, George Walsh has run a good store and been a strong supporter of the community as a sponsor of the Shelter Island 10K Run, providing refreshments for various community activities and giving his time as a member of the Town Board. He's also shown himself to be the kind of boss who can keep his employees. Carol Loper worked for George's father and then came to the new store when it opened in 1977. Both Jose Miranda and Orlando Salazar have more than 20 years in. While I was waiting to interview George, he was busy getting a new meat manager off to a good start. He's trying to get everything on auto-pilot so he can take a little time off for a Canadian cruise with his wife, Eileen.

When he gets back, he's got plenty to keep him occupied, including managing this sale or no sale thing. I asked George if he'd consider selling the property to a buyer who wanted to put something other than a supermarket there. “I don't want to do that,” he said. “The town needs a supermarket. And, I intend to live here.”

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