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Koth's Grocery will shut its doors next week, sealing up a neighborhood hangout where longtime customers can still bill their purchases and regulars battle the owner in games of cribbage.'
The small shop at the corner of North and Bladen streets will close after opening its doors for the first time about 60 years ago.'
"It's seen better days," owner Jimmy Koth said Thursday, flipping over cards as he worked through a game of solitaire next to the cash register.'
The soft-spoken, suspender-wearing Koth -- who took over the business opened by his uncle -- has operated the cash register for nearly 20 years, chatting with regulars who trickle into the store and jotting down their tabs on bits of paper as they leave.'
Those who aren't among the initiated have to pay up front like everywhere else but can take advantage of a going-out-of-business sale that has prices slashed in half.'
"I'm sad, sad, sad that Mr. Koth is leaving. It's the last mom-and-pop store," said Suezanne Foot, who shops at Koth's Grocery five days a week for water, sandwiches and cigarettes.'
A delicatessen at the back of the store brings in downtown and Bladen Street workers, including Rick Brooke, the manager of ABC Hearing on Bladen.'
"This was the only place you could walk to and eat. Now it's hop in the car and go," Brooke said.'
Koth said many events over the years led to the closing of the store, including frequent burglaries, the closing of nearby Beaufort Junior High School and the relocation of the Beaufort County Courthouse. '
"You feel everything," Koth said. "The biggest feel was probably when they moved the courthouse. That was a pretty big knock."'
Vickie Sierra, the store's deli worker and "next in charge," said competition, higher taxes and business license fees all contributed to business hardships, too.'
The business has risen from the ashes before, as Koth said the original wooden store burned down around 1960 and was replaced by the current structure. Plans are to lease the building, though Koth has received more interest from those wishing to purchase the building and land that is so close to The Bluff.'
Until the doors close next week, there's still time for the solemn card playing on the checkout counter that absorbs Koth.'
"We play a hand of cribbage now and then," said Koth, who has more than one cribbage board under his counter.'
By "now and then," Koth means daily games of cribbage with any of three regular partners, some of whom he has been playing with for more than five years.'
While the men gather to play cards in the front, Sierra is the draw in back for a group of local female diners.'
"I had a lunch crew that ate here at least four days a week, if not five," said Sierra, who said if members of the group did not see her car outside the store, they wouldn't come in.'
Sierra will start a job in the cafeteria of Beaufort Memorial Hospital on Monday, a far different atmosphere from the store she remembered buying penny candy from as a kid and that made home deliveries of groceries.'
Most of all, Sierra will miss the chance to work alongside Koth, her boyfriend of 18 years.'
"I think the best part of the job is that Jimmy is such a good person," Sierra said. "Nothing bothers him."'
Concentrating on another game of solitaire, Koth wonders about the next step.'
"I wish I knew what I was going to do next. I wish it was that easy," Koth said.'
Deftly flipping another card, Koth calmly uttered, "It's just another page."