By the time Bruce Kirtley closed the door on the store he’d owned for a quarter-century, it was completely empty. “I’d given away pretty much everything inside,” he said: the large appliances to other businesses, the wine to wine lovers, other merchandise to employees and friends. Selling the business was impossible, he said. Although that was his hope at one time, the accumulated disrepair of the building and grounds that he doesn’t own prevented that. The final blow actually came after his decision to close the business: “The health department has officially condemned the septic system,” he said. The septic troubles were the last in a series of problems that he expected to remain unaddressed by the property’s owner, Phil Delaney, who also owns other visibly neglected properties—wannonoa and the old Howard Johnson’s—on Afton Mountain.
But Kirtley said he doesn’t want to dwell on what might have been. “It was time,” he said. “I’m ready to retire.” He was preceded in his retirement by his wife Bonnie, who developed many of Toddsbury’s signature dishes and created the famous curried chicken salad and other upscale versions of family favorites that gave the store its loyal clientele. “With a ‘mom and pop’ store, you really have to have a mom and pop on the premises,” he said. “Otherwise you’re just juggling employment and staffing issues from morning til night.”
After he swept the store clean and locked the door, Kirtley acknowledged the vivid memories it still holds for him. “The word is that there may have been a murder there in the ‘60s,” he said. There’s a long history to the building, which he believes was originally built as a garage in the 1940s. It was, for a while early in its history, part of a compound owned by the three Wood brothers, who ran a gas station as well as other buildings that now house the Ivy Post Office and Ivy Corner.
There’s one story from the ’50s that he really likes: “At one time, the store had the only radio around that could pick up the World Series,” he said. “So, the manager would put it in the window, turn up the sound, and those in the parking lot would listen to it from their cars and pick-up trucks.” He noted that the store probably did a good beer business on those days.
At another point, the store was a “7 Day Jr.,” a local chain originally connected with Foods of All Nations, some of which still remain in Charlottesville.
Plenty happened there over the years he owned the business, most of it rewarding: “We developed a good feel for what people liked,” Kirtley said. He had always admired Bonnie’s skill in the kitchen, and they began to take American favorites and make them better, with good ingredients and appropriate seasoning. “I think Bonnie kind of trained people to expect better food,” he said, “And I helped them learn about wine.” And Kirtley himself became a master at barbecue, creating both the rub and the mopping sauce for his signature pork butts. When they saw how much people took to their improved take on chicken salad, they began to tinker with other standards, like the BLT and sausage-and-egg biscuits.
They found they could make these staples better by using high-quality ingredients and adding an extra touch. For instance, BLTs: “Good bacon, the right bread, Duke’s mayonnaise,” Kirtley said. “That makes all the difference.”
Kirtley is proud of the place the store assumed in the community as the place to stop, not only for a good lunch, but for questions about the area from travelers passing through. It was a place where local folks could find out who had died and who had a new baby. “We’ve been to plenty of funerals, and watched many kids grow up.” He acknowledged that the community has changed, a phenomenon he was able to track according to sales of the New York Times. “I do avoid talking politics,” he said, “but there are a few instances when I’ve broken my own rules.”
Kirtley had run for a seat in the General Assembly in 1997, and was defeated. “Getting into politics was why I had sold the family distributing business,” he said. “When the smoke cleared, I looked around for something else to do.” Too old for law school or medical school, and confident of Bonnie’s culinary skills, he bought the business from Myles Goger and named it after a familiar street in Richmond.
There have been a few unfortunate instances at the store, including a false break-in alarm caused by a falling wine crate. “We had mopped the floor and I think the soggy box collapsed,” he said. Because of a highly sensitive security system, the alarm captured the sound of breaking glass. A couple of other alerts were for real, triggered by a burglar familiar with the store. After getting off on a technicality for the first incident, the man returned a second time and was caught and convicted.
A third incident was more dramatic, with multiple burglars, drawing the majority of the Albemarle Police force, including police dogs and the county SWAT team. The security system called Kirtley at the same time it notified the police, and he showed up with a pistol and his dog. “The officers let me know I was not necessary for the operation,” Kirtley said. “Of course, they were right.” The police went in, guns drawn, and the dog realized that the intruders had fled upstairs. As the SWAT team prepared to go into the darkened attic, the burglars jumped down through the dry wall and were apprehended. “A lot of excitement for one night,” Kirtley said.
As Kirtley contemplates retirement, he said he needs to tie up a great many loose ends and would like to travel, but he anticipates that at least some of his time will be spent volunteering in the community. “I’ll have plenty to do,” he said.