In 1975, Stuart Dunaway, Mitchell Carlson and Lee Davis joined together to form Tri-Star Supermarket at the site of the recently closed A&P on School Street in Kilmarnock. They brought together each’s wealth of experience in the retail grocery business, and the store has thrived for the past five decades.
Mitchell died in 2011; Stuart died last June, and Lee died last Thursday, leaving a great void in the life of the lower Northern Neck.
Each of these gentlemen was the quintessential example of how to conduct a retail business. They were faithful to their customer base, and their customers were consistently loyal to them. They knew how to build and keep their patronage, always seeing themselves as serving the public.
Lee had come to Kilmarnock to manage the A&P, putting his mercantile ability to the service of his customers. He was always “out there” taking up any task that needed to be done, whether manning a cash register, bagging groceries, sweeping the floor, arranging produce, or greeting everyone in his viewshed. He truly knew the retail business backwards and forward.
A stop at Tri-Star without engaging in an exchange with any one of the three owners was incomplete. Mitchell and Stuart were more sardonic in their wit and repartee, whereas Lee followed a more “give-and-take” approach. He was known for his quick retorts, which left his listeners in stitches.
Lee and his late wife, Evon, who died in 2020, had a regular ritual every Thursday morning. At 8:30 a.m., Evon would pull into the parking lot, get out of her car, and enter the store, to be greeted by Lee with a shopping cart in hand. He accompanied her up and down the aisles, all the way to the checkout counter, and then often out to her car. I told him that his conduct was quite chivalrous and impressive, to which he retorted, “I go with her to make sure she does not spend too much money.”
One of Lee’s greatest foils for his banter-like conversation, was Ellen Lee, whom I called Auntie. She told him that she did all of her grocery shopping at Tri-Star, except for dog food, which she bought at Safeway. Lee came back, asking her what brand of dog food she purchased, and affirming that he could have it on the shelf the following Thursday.
Auntie said, “No, Lee. You cannot get my brand.” He insisted that he could, pushing her to tell him the brand name. Finally, she acquiesced, and said, “It is Safeway brand.” She went home happy that she had gotten the better of the exchange. Ironically, not long thereafter, Safeway left Kilmarnock, and Tri-Star moved into its former location.
Many years ago, a longtime Tri-Star customer moved to Florida. Once there, she found that she could not get the brand of canned herring roe that she always had gotten at Tri-Star. She contacted Lee, and for years, whenever she alerted him that she was running out, he would take a carton of the brand off the shelf, wrap it, and proceed to the Kilmarnock post office to mail it to her.
I told him I was certain she must be extremely grateful for his more than “due diligence,” to which he replied that he only charged her the retail price and postal cost, with no charge for the extra effort he put forth to get it to her, noting that she had been a very good customer. That action represents the essence of good retail practice. Although he had lost the lady as a regular customer, by sending her the herring roe, he was able to express his gratitude for her years of patronage.
Lee had become an institution in Kilmarnock, as much of one as the store which he husbanded for nearly a half-century. He was a true friend to countless people in need, and in all things a gentleman to the core.
Robert Lee Davis, November 2, 1936 – March 24, 2022. R.I.P.