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Gorilla-displaying vacuum store to close (w/video)

By BY JESSICA RODRIGO - JRODRIGO@VICAD.COM
May 19, 2014 at 12:19 a.m.

Margaret Kolar from Moulton gets her Riccar vacuum serviced at Tom's Vacuum on Rio Grande at Navarro.  Customer service has been the hallmark of service provided by Tom's Vacuum which will close it's doors in June when owner Jan Bleeker will retire after 39 years in business.

Get there before it closes

Tom's Vacuum Center will close June 27. If your vacuum needs attention, Jan Bleeker said to bring it in for service right away. They'll stop ordering new parts and taking repair jobs at the beginning of June.

For more information, call 361-573-3871 or visit the business at 501 E. Rio Grande St. in Victoria between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

What's Bubba's story?

A few years after the business opened, Jan Bleeker said a friend of Tom's convinced him to buy Bubba, a life-size gorilla, as an attention-getter or as a land marker.

"He's been around since 1978, and he's part of the family," she said.

Almost every day the Tom's Vacuum Center is open, Bubba will take his spot on the corner, she said. Depending on the occasion, he might change his attire to fit in. Sometimes it's red, white and blue during Warrior's Weekend, pink for breast cancer awareness or a costume for Halloween.

She's not sure what they'll do with him, but Mike Vanelli is glad he'll be safe.

"We won't have to worry about the gorilla being beat up by Pepper," he said.

Be sure to say goodbye to Bubba before the business he calls home closes for good.

Jan Bleeker, Tom's widow and owner of Tom's Vacuum Center, said she's unsure what will happen to Victoria's iconic gorilla perched at the intersection of Navarro and Rio Grande streets. When the business closes June 27, he could find himself standing at another corner in Victoria.

"I suppose we'll have to sell him, too," Bleeker, 66, said.

After months of consideration, she decided it was time to retire and close the business she and her husband opened at the same location in 1974.

She said Tom, who died in 2008, would have told her to retire a few years ago.

With the help of full-time employee Ilene Pena, many of their loyal customers have already been called to inform them of the business' closing date.

"I'm sure that there are a lot of people we missed," Bleeker said as she removed screws from Margaret Kolar's Riccar upright Monday with a cordless drill. "We're trying not to forget anyone."

Once Mike Vanelli, 30-year service manager at Tom's, adjusted to working two jobs and started working less at Tom's, Bleeker and Pena took over most of the maintenance work.

He now works at Holy Family Church during most of the day and comes to Tom's to finish small jobs and complete estimates. It's a different dynamic, he said, and it will take some getting used to.

"It's kind of surreal since we've been open for so long," Vanelli, 56, said about the business closing.

He said he'll miss visiting with the customers and hearing the stories they shared about family or other goings-on. The business has been such a big service to the community, he said.

When he's not working, Bleeker and Pena can be found in a small room with a large window that faces the New Rodeo restaurant across the street tag-teaming the vacuums that have been steadily coming in since the news is out that Tom's is closing.

Pena, 25, has been with the company for nine years and said she's going to miss all the customers and coming to work alongside Bleeker every day. It's a sentiment Pena said many of the customers share with her.

"They're sad, but they're also happy to see her retire. She deserves it," Pena said.

Until then, the two will continue to work on vacuums and sell as much of their inventory as possible.

Bubba will continue to stand on his stoop on the corner, and when it's time to punch out, Bleeker will bring him in and put him in "his closet so that he doesn't run away."

Before Bleeker had finished cleaning Kolar's vacuum, she affixed a gold-and-red foil sticker that celebrated Tom's 40th anniversary.

"We won't quite make it till then, but it'll be awfully close," Bleeker said. The business opened in July 1974.

The electric chime signaled as Kolar walked through the door, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

Bleeker picked the Riccar off the table and gently set it upright on the carpet. She plugged it in to give it a whirl, to show her it was ready and roaring to go. Kolar added a few extra bags and two belts to the order for good measure, too.

"You enjoy your retirement," said Kolar from across the desk where Bleeker filled out a receipt by hand. "Take your nap in the afternoon, too."

Bleeker smiled to her and assured she would do just that. She grabbed the vacuum, walked Kolar to her car and made sure she was packed for her ride back to Moulton.

She said the hardest part about locking the door for the last time is going to be the new routine.

"I always have something to do, but I'll find something to do," Bleeker said.

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