David Lauderdale

So why does it hurt when a Hilton Head grocery store says it’s going to close?

Bi-Lo looked a lot different from this North Carolina store when it first opened on Hilton Head Island in 1985.
Bi-Lo looked a lot different from this North Carolina store when it first opened on Hilton Head Island in 1985. Charlotte Observer

OK, so a grocery store isn’t your best friend.

So why does it hurt when they leave?

In Beaufort County, people are still mourning the loss of the Piggly Wiggly stores in downtown Beaufort and in Sheldon.

And don’t even think about the lingering sorrow over the loss of Mom Miller’s in Beaufort or Scotts Meats in Bluffton. Grief counselors are still standing by.

Now we hear that the Bi-Lo in Hilton Head Island’s Port Royal Plaza is closing.

Over time, a grocery store becomes more than a grocery store. And then it’s gone.

When this Bi-Lo opened on a Sunday morning, if you will, in March 1985, about 150 people came to gaze upon its marvels, not the least of which was an oversized sign with a steer between the words Bi and Lo. How did that get in here?

It was the second anchor of a cutting-edge shopping center that brought the biggest game-changer of them all to Hilton Head: Walmart. Suddenly, you could get a hammer for less than $125, and just as suddenly, the winds of change on the island were hitting gale force on their way to a Cat 1 hurricane.

A second Piggly Wiggly, in the Plaza at Shelter Cove (now a Whole Foods), was next. And a second Winn-Dixie, at the newfangled Northridge Plaza (now a Home Goods store) followed. No longer would you have to fight on a Sunday afternoon for the last loaf of bread at the Big Star (now Stein Mart) at Pineland Mall (now Sea Turtle Marketplace).

In 34 years, we got to know our friend, the Bi-Lo.

It was a place for good prices.

It seemed to me to the first business to cater to the Latino population when it quietly slipped in like a rising tide in the 1990s.

It was a popular place for Latinos to wire money back home.

Islanders used to whisper to The Island Packet that homeless people were living on the Bi-Lo roof.

That was never proven, but it is true that the island’s most celebrated homeless man, the late Douglas Wood, worked at the Bi-Lo for a while. But working regular like that wasn’t really part of the makeup of a man who once was one of Atlanta’s leading real estate agents and still had an account at Merrill Lynch.

Then there was the day someone called in a bomb threat to the Bi-Lo.

To convince the store the threat was real, the caller directed the manager to a bomb hidden behind jars of pickled pigs feet.

Forget the bomb, which turned out to be fake, there was the big scoop: Someone allowed pickled pigs feet onto Hilton Head Island.

One time, the store shelves were all but bare after the federal government shut down Bi-Lo’s main warehouse near Greenville for five days after inspectors witnessed “leaping rodents.”

Bi-Lo was a community player when businesses had no choice but to be community players if this place was going to swim rather than sink.

Parents turned in receipts totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and Bi-Lo would give their children’s school a whiz-bang IBM computer.

Bi-Lo became a sponsor of the island’s main event, the PGA Tour event in Sea Pines now called the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

It sponsored the Bi-Lo Shootout in 1986, with seven past Heritage champions playing a “skins” game over six holes. Bill Rogers, who had won a British Open, edged Bernhard Langer, who had won the Masters, for the $4,000 prize.

In 1992, Bi-Lo would open a second island store, on Pope Avenue. It opened as a 24-hour enterprise, becoming the island’s largest and 10th supermarket, and it remains open today.

That Bi-Lo came with a good lesson for islanders, who were by then tired of being buffetted by the winds of change. That’s when a court ruling let us know that a town can’t just up and say, “No more grocery stores. We think we’ve got enough grocery stores, thank you, so go away.”

Lord knows, there are still plenty of grocery stores around here that apparently are not “under-performing,” as the corporate leaders said about our north-end Bi-Lo. But it outlasted all of the old-timers except for David Martin’s Piggly Wiggly in Coligny Plaza.

And I hate to see it go.

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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