Catch and Release at Slate RunApr 01, 2021 10:45AM ● By Gayle Morrow
It is official—the iconic Wolfe’s General Store/Slate Run Tackle Shop has new owners. It is also “overwhelming and exciting,” says Kim Kozlowski, who, with her husband, Tom, are those new owners. But, she adds, “we have Deb and Tom.”
Deb and Tom (the other Tom) are the Finkbiners, also a Pine Creek Valley institution, and they have owned and operated the store and the tackle shop on Route 414 in Brown Township, Lycoming County, for forty-five years. They’re sort of, kind of, ready to retire, although not quite. In Tom Finkbiner’s words, “Deb and I are going to hang in there” with the Kozlowskis. For a while, anyway.
It was back in the mid-1970s that Deb purchased the Wolfe’s General Store from her former in-laws.
“I was supposed to be here,” she says. “It was part of my journey.” Tom was another part of her journey, and she of his—the two met not long after she bought the store, and the wheels, or maybe it was the reels, started spinning.
“We wanted to make the store unique,” says Tom. They also wanted a fly fishing shop—preferably one with a line of Orvis products. Might as well dream big, right? Pine Creek was already renowned in some circles for its world-class fishing, but it was something of a well-kept secret. So much a secret that the first company executive Tom approached about being a product/equipment outlet was less than enthusiastic when he learned Slate Run had only nineteen permanent residents. How in the world could Tom afford an inventory of high-end fishing supplies selling to nineteen people?
It wasn’t too long after that, though, that an Orvis official, who had talked with somebody who had talked with somebody about the amazing fishing on Pine Creek in north central Pennsylvania, called and wanted to talk about product placement at the store.
“The first seven or eight years were challenging,” Tom continues. “Every penny we could get our hands on went into the store.” As the number of fisherfolk and other outdoorsy types visiting the area increased, “what we found was that people were coming and had no place to eat.” That led Deb to expand the line of food offerings—that, and an offhand comment from a customer that “you should make your own bread...” So, “we got this idea about building a deli,” Tom says.
“We did sticky buns too, back then,” Deb says. “There would be a waiting line.”
So, over the years, the store became the go-to spot, a destination, really, for high-end fly-fishing equipment, yummy sandwiches, camp supplies, good conversation, and a helping hand when one was needed.
“It’s only a country store” to somebody who just walks in, but “it’s a very complex thing to run,” Tom says. The couple persevered.
“We lived our little dream, and did everything we needed to do to develop a business we could be proud of,” Tom says. But, as for many folks who have worked all their lives, retirement, while they could still enjoy it, was a goal. Finding the right people to take over the business wasn’t happening, however. They imagined it would close, maybe become a bed and breakfast.
“People would come and look...and then, luckily, Tom and Kim came along,” Tom says.
“I said to Tom, ‘they’re the ones,’” Deb recalls.
The Kozlowskis have a home in Haneyville, which is just a couple ridges over from Slate Run, and own and operate several Subway franchises in Lycoming County. Those businesses support seventy-two employees, and have a lot of moving parts, so there are aspects of their new endeavor which are somewhat familiar. Kim was a traveling nurse, and laughs that “I have a pretty good background of throwing myself into the fire.” Her family has had a variety of businesses in the lower Pine Creek Valley (“My grandfather was known for making turtle soup,” she notes). Both Tom and Kim are serious hikers, campers, fisherfolk, and lovers of “outdoorsy things.”
“When we saw this was for sale...” Kim says, taking a break to answer the phone.
“Wolfe’s General Store, this is Kim, how can I help you?” she says, like she’s been saying it all her life.
The couple are planning some changes. They want to put a deck on the building, and up the focus on hiking opportunities. Kim characterizes changes to the inventory as “a double-edged sword.”
“Deb has made it easy. She’s done it successfully for forty-five years. We’ll add some of my own taste, some little additions, but overall it’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”
“We’ll both learn each thing,” Tom Kozlowski says of the business’s divergent but intertwined tackle and convenience store/sandwich-making departments. They agree that they’re taking over a legend, and are enthusiastic about the prospect.
Plus, Tom reassures all those who love the Slate Run Tackle Shop’s famed Brown Trout Club that it is “absolutely” continuing. The Wolfe’s General Store/Slate Run Tackle Shop story would not be complete without noting that it could have ended some years ago. During the mid-1980s, the Finkbiners considered relocating to Montana. They bought a little land, made regular visits, and figured they’d open a fly shop there. Friends Bob and Dottie Webber, who had their own little mountaintop paradise near Slate Run, helped them understand that their life was here. It was Bob Webber who said, “I don’t know how you two can leave it,” Tom recalls.
Ultimately, they couldn’t. This was, and is, home, and they’re confident the future of their “baby,” as they characterize the store, is bright.
“They’ll put their signature on this,” Tom says of the Kozlowskis.
And that’s no fish story.
For more information, visit slaterun.com or call (570) 753-8551.