Rick Kovacs, who ran the store for the past five years with his wife, Angie Oliver, said business was too slow in the off-seasons to make a living.
“Any gains I make during summer are gone by February, and then I just have to hang on,” Kovacs told Adirondack Almanack.
Wanakena is a tiny hamlet on the Oswegatchie River on edge of the Five Ponds Wilderness. A former lumbering community, it is known today primarily as the home to the New York State Ranger School, from which Kovacs graduated in 1976.
The general store, located in the same building as the post office, has been at the same spot for about sixty years, according to Kovacs. It sells groceries, outdoor supplies, clothing, and other goods.
Kovacs, who is 61, returned to Wanakena more than a decade ago to open the Packbasket Lodge. When the general store was in danger of shutting down, he took that over too and signed a five-year lease.
Once the lease expires in October, Kovacs intends to put more time into his lodge. Since opening the lodge, he has cultivated a loyal following. “It caters to baby boomers who like the outdoors but don’t want to sleep on the ground anymore,” he said.
Still, he describes closing the store as a “bittersweet decision.”
“I don’t want to drive 35 miles to buy groceries,” he said. “I like the convenience of the store, but I couldn’t make a living at it.”
The store will be missed by its regular customers. One of them is Neil Woodworth, the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, who owns a second home in Wanakena.
“My wife and I, like many other year-round visitors, are very, very sad about the closing of the general store,” he said. “It was an important part of the Wanakena community. It was located next to the post office, and it was a great place to meet your friends and neighbors.”
Hikers, paddlers, cross-country skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts frequently stop at the store to stock up on supplies, get the latest weather forecast, find out about trail conditions, or get directions to backcountry destinations.
“If I had a dollar for every person I directed to High Falls or High Rock or Janacks Landing or Cat Mountain, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kovacs remarked.
Wanakena lost another landmark a few years ago: its celebrated footbridge over the Oswegatchie was destroyed by ice jams. The bridge is going to be rebuilt, but there are are no plans to reopen the general store.
Dave Ziemba, who owns the store’s building, said his daughter, Hannah, and her boyfriend plan to open an artist-in-residence studio in part of the building. The rest of the store will become a public space where they will sponsor music and other events. Details are still being worked out, but Ziemba said hikers and other visitors may be able to stop by for a cup of coffee, a newspaper, or a map. They plan to call it Otto’s Abode in tribute to a man who played an important role in starting the ranger school.
“It’s not going to be retail as much as it is arts and music,” said Ziemba, who ran the store before Kovacs. “It’s going to be free flowing.”
Photo by Phil Brown: Rick Kovacs inside the Wanakena General Store.