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THROWBACK THURSDAY: Local market destroyed by fire known for deep commitment to Southington

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Local market destroyed by fire known for deep commitment to Southington

SOUTHINGTON — From the founding Topshe family to John Salerno and Betsy Tooker, Tops Market owners have been known for their commitment to the local community.

George Topshe started Tops Market in 1951. At the time, it was one of a host of independent grocery stores run by area residents, others being Guido’s Supermarket on Main Street and Sal’s Market on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike. Tops, also on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, is the last of the town’s locally-owned grocery stores.

Salerno said he intends to rebuild after a Sunday fire destroyed the building and its contents.

George Topshe and his sons, Douglas and Robert, ran the store until they sold it in 1980 to John Salerno and John Kastner. Tooker, who has worked at the store since age 14, became a co-owner after Kastner’s death.

Art Secondo, former chamber of commerce president, said Douglas Topshe was “very, very active in the community.” The Topshe family lived behind what is now Arby’s on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike.

Douglas Topshe, who served as a Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, died in 2001. Secondo described him as a big guy with the personality of “a little teddy bear.”

Whether under the Topshes or Salerno and Tooker, Secondo said customers were made to feel welcome at Tops. That’s allowed the store to survive as competitors closed or were bought by grocery chains. It has also created an emotional connection between shoppers and the owners.

“People are very emotional over this,” Secondo said of the fire. Tops “has been in the town a long time, people do miss it. In this case it’s the individuals.”

“You’ve got to be there to show people you appreciate them spending money there. And that’s what they did,” Secondo said of past and present owners.

Salerno and Tooker undertook a major renovation in 1997 that added 5,000 square feet to the store by demolishing a next door building. The owners added services such as catering, prepared meals and frequent shopper cards over the years to stay competitive with larger stores. Tops also had an in-store bakery before that was common for supermarkets.

Tops is an Independent Grocers Alliance store and buys food from Bozzuto’s in Cheshire. Kevin Daly, Bozzuto’s vice president, hoped Tops would rebuild. Bozzuto’s employees in the area often shop there and now face a longer ride to other supermarkets in Meriden or on Queen Street.

Daly also praised Salerno and Tooker’s generosity with town charities. Tops has donated food to Southington High School’s marching band, Bread for Life and other organizations. It has also made the store available for food drives and other fundraisers.

“Stores like Tops market, Gnazzo’s in Plainville, single-store operators that live in the community that their supermarkets operate in, they just give so much back to their community,” Daly said. “They’ve got their finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on the community. They’ve had generations of people come through the doors.”

Tops owners were recognized many times for their contributions to community causes. In 2006, Salerno and Tooker were named grand marshals of the Apple Harvest Festival parade.

Twitter: @JBuchananRJ