A recent article in a newsletter, “The Rural Blog,” out of the University of the Kentucky School of Journalism, lamented the disappearance of country stores. I concur.
When I was a boy, almost every little community in Anderson County, South Carolina, had a small store. A few existed outside what could reasonably be considered a community, inconceivably situated on some lightly traveled farm-to-market road, just in case, one surmises, someone might need a can of beans, a hunk of cheese or a bag of nails. I never witnessed brisk trade at any of the more out-of-the-way markets, but many persisted for years, until, as the Rural Blog article explains, chain stores drove them out of business.
I remember several. One was near my Granddaddy Griffith’s, on the outskirts of Slabtown, a village that once featured a sawmill, which provided building material for many of the hamlet’s early structures. Homes, shops and outbuildings featured planks made from the first rough cuts of a log, called slabs, hence the name. They saved the good planks for market.
The Slabtown store, run by two gentlemen, Jim Porter and Avin (possible Alvin, but Avin’s the way it sounded in southern lingo) Hunter, was a small, brick and concrete structure, situated next to a farmstead on a fairly well-traveled road running from Pelzer to Pendleton.
Granddaddy would let us ride along—in the bed of his pickup in the summertime—when he was out in the evenings picking up dogfood, seed or whatever else he needed on the farm. He usually bought us Coca Colas or what we called cattail suckers, long lollipops that (vaguely) resembled a cattail—the plant more so than the feline.
The store carried other necessary wares, as well: hats, gloves, canned goods, bread, and most staples, saving nearby farmers and other rural residents a trip all the way into town to the grocery store for just an item or two.
We sometimes patronized a small store nearer our home, located on the outskirts of Piedmont. Spearman and Gillespie’s was cater-cornered across from Wilson’s Feed and Seed, and across the road from another small store we never went in as it had something of a reputation. I think they sold beer.
Mr. Spearman and Mr. Gillespie were affable, middle-aged gentlemen who did not hesitate to tease 10- or 12-year old boys. Our Granddaddy Smith did a lot of his grocery shopping at Spearman and Gillespie’s, so they knew us pretty well. I sold them a rabbit a time or two. I trapped rabbits in the winter in a box trap—we called them rabbit gums. The store proprietors liked to get fresh-trapped rabbits instead of the ones killed by shotgun---no pellets.
Mr. Willie Addison ran a store right by our church, so sometimes after Royal Ambassador (another whole column some time) weekend meetings or ball games, we could stop in for an ice cream bar or soft drink. Mr. Willie’s store was also a gas station, and he would permit us to pump gas for him when a car rolled over the cable that prompted a ding inside the store. He never paid us for this labor, but we didn’t care; we thought it was fun.
Mr. Willie also used his store to sell produce he grew on his farm. In the summer he stocked okra, green beans, butter beans, melons, tomatoes—most anything you could want that you didn’t grow yourself.
We occasionally stopped in another small country store on the other side of Piedmont. That’s where the Anderson County Library bookmobile stopped about twice a month. Our neighbors’ mom would let us pile in the car with her brood—four of them, five of us, but we rarely all went at the same time—to visit the traveling library and check out enough books to last us two weeks.
Mr. Donald Durham’s store was located across from the White Plains School, where I spent my first two years of public education. And Mr. Rogers ran a store and garage a few miles up the road. I’m still in touch with the Durham and Rogers’ families.
DIRECTIONS AND GASOLINE
As recently as the late 1970s, when I first started covering agriculture for Farm Press, I drove by similar country stores scattered across the Southeast. I sometimes stopped to ask directions to the “Jones” farm or the fastest way to get back to Eufaula, Alabama, before dark. A few offered the only source of gasoline for miles, but you better have cash.
I remember some rural stores that served lunch, but you had to time your stop to beat the rush. In many cases, the country store was the only place for miles that offered hot meals.
It’s a shame most of these family-owned mercantile establishments have disappeared. They always stocked the stuff that a community needed, and a few things that only gathered dust in the back corner on the top shelf. But if you needed a fish hook, a box of shotgun shells, some twine, a pair of overalls, rubber boots, a hammer, bandages, a bottle of tonic, or a fancy bonnet, the country store probably had it.
I’m still baffled at how stocking decisions were made, how inventory was adjusted and how long some items remained on the shelves. The country stores I remember left me in awe at what’s available out in the country.
The images remain lodged in my head. Floors were wooden, oiled and scarred, swept daily but never completely clean. Most had a candy counter, and one never asked the expiration date on a jawbreaker.
A pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store, ringed with wobbly, straight-backed, cane-bottomed, chairs, milk crates or empty nail kegs, provided the focal point. In winter, the proprietors fired up those stoves, and the locals huddled around to discuss politics, crop prices, brother James’ Sunday sermon, and who ran off with who over the weekend. Lard cans sloshed with tobacco juice—at least the portion that hit the target and not the globs that splashed the floor or sizzled on the side of the hot stove.
The country store was a gathering place, a community center where decisions were made, judgments rendered, and local needs discussed and taken care of. Strangers got a hard look, but assistance if they needed it. It was a place for news, a local treasure, and a small business that rarely made money but offered much in outreach, social interaction and community spirit.
I don’t see them now. Chain-label gas stations have taken their place, but offer nothing close to the ambience (a word you’d never hear in a country store) one got from these mom and pop businesses. The country store has gone the way of porch swings and quilting bees, hay rides and corn shuckings—their disappearance a reminder of how much rural America has changed in a just a few decades, and not necessarily for the better.