Clerk Saves Century-old Grocery Store

Hometown Heroes, People
on July 29, 2001

When century-old Praters Grocery and General Merchandise in Kilbourne, Ill., (pop. 363) was fated to close last year, Robin Johnson was determined not to let it happen.

The part-time clerk went to work full time, restocking shelves, enlisting volunteers to help paint the stores interior, and convincing its owner she could turn the floundering business around and make a profit.

A lot of people really depend on this store, says Johnson, 38, who first worked as a clerk at Praters as a teenager.

For example, local customers with too little money sometimes charge their purchases, Johnson explains, while older people and those who cant get around easily would find it difficult to get groceries without a store in town offering free deliveriesas Praters does.

Owner Bob Prater, however, was ready to let the store fade into history after the death of longtime clerk Russell Hughes in February 2000. Prater held a sale a few months later to liquidate old stock and furniture and began the process of closing the business, which has served as a social hub, hardware store, and grocery since the turn of the century.

When so many townspeople turned out for the sale and expressed sadness at its closing, Johnson saw there was not only a need, but also hope for the stores future. She approached Prater to convince him to keep it open.

He just said well see, Johnson recalls.

She continued to run the store and make smallthen largerimprovements. She started by ordering new items to stock the shelves, making sandwiches again, and bringing in a table and chairs so customers could sit down and have lunch or socialize.

She has invested a lot of time and energy, says Martha Garren, Johnsons aunt and a lifelong store customer. Shes recruited people to give their time, and shes trying to be competitive in pricing so people dont have to drive out of town for smaller items.

Painting the store proved to be a turning point, Johnson says, and when business picked up, Prater, who owns a local oil supply business, took notice. He not only kept the store open, but also bought a new computer system to maintain its books.

Johnson, in turn, brought in some of her own food service equipment, including a fryer, steam tables, and freezers, and turned the meat and sandwich counter into a full-fledged deli.

The improvements made customers happy, and the store is finally turning a profit after years of losses.

Were doing quite a bit better, Prater says. Shes doing a great job.

Customer Karen Showalter is grateful to see what Johnson has done and glad the store remains open to serve the community. It would have been a lot of hardship for a lot of the elderly who dont drive anymore if the store had closed, she says, adding that the nearest grocery store is in Havana (pop. 3,673), 11 miles to the north.

Kathleen Hahn, a Kilbourne native who has shopped at Praters all her life, is pleased with Johnsons efforts. I think its wonderful. Shes done a really good job reviving the place, Hahn says. Im very glad it stayed open. Its very important to the life of the town.