Primitive Country General Stores

Primitive country general stores sold everything from food to coffins, were owned by the same family for generations, and were a central meeting place for communities.

It wasn't much of a store to start with -- just the barest kind of a shack. Inside was a counter, a cooler for soft drinks and milk, a few shelves for bread and other staples and, of course, the ever-present pot-bellied stove. But proprietor Birge Coley was proud of it and for years the store served the few farm families scattered along Red Hill Road near Gate City, Virginia.

Birge never did figure to make much money as a storekeep. In fact, he had a good paying job at Tennessee Eastman in nearby Kingsport. "Sometimes I think Daddy's real reason for his store," his son Jimmy said recently, "was to provide a place for him and his friends to play Rook. It was natural for him to open a country store because that's where the neighborhood generally congregated -- especially the Rook players."

Birge died about two years ago, a tragic victim of Alzheimer's. The store, then abandoned, was put on skids and moved to Jimmy's nearby farm where it is now used to store supplies. There is really no need for it to be in business any more. Nearby Gate City is filled with convenience stores.

The old-time country store, or general store, was, indeed, a place to meet, swap stories, talk politics, argue religion, and to generally gripe about the lack (or the over abundance) of rain -- even to play cards. Like the barbershop of old, the country store was essentially a masculine place. Women would shop there, of course. But they'd purchase what they needed, then leave. It was the men who stayed and gossiped.

Every rural community had a country store just as nearly every urban neighborhood had a corner grocery. Seventy-five or 100 years ago, there were few chain stores and certainly no supermarkets. Farm families canned most of their vegetables, butchered their own meat, milked their own cows, and made most of their own bread. The foodstuffs they bought at country stores were mostly basic ingredients that they could not make or gather themselves, like flour, sugar and salt.

By necessity, country stores were like miniature Super Wal-Marts. Not only did they carry food staples, they also stocked most supplies needed on the farm.

Most farmers maintained a small blacksmith shop in one of the outbuildings for quick repairs, for instance, but large or complex items were bought at the country store -- plowshares, horseshoes and the blades for scythes and sickles when it was time to grub brush. And the country store carried baskets of seeds, onion sets, tomato plants and seed potatoes in the springtime. Leather harnesses hung on the walls and saddles and bridles draped over long wood horses. Grease for lubricating wagon wheels was available in large tubs and coal oil or kerosene was hand-pumped from tanks out back.

For the women, stores carried bolts of cloth, needles and thread, dye, candles, split bonnets and dresses. For the men there was long-handle underwear, hats, overalls, gloves and boots. To a child with a nickel, the country store was a magic place. A kid could fill a small poke with penny candy. In fact, most candy cost a penny for two or even three pieces.

Many post offices were located in the local country store and the postmaster was generally the store's owner. Most people in outlying areas fetched their mail once every week or two. And while they were there, patrons would sit around the pot-bellied stove at catch up on neighborhood gossip. Since the country store housed the post office, that is where the annual seed catalogs landed first. By the time the catalogs got to their destination, they were sometimes well thumbed-though by browsers.

Credit was no problem. The proprietor knew his customers well. And knowing the business of agriculture, he realized that certain times of the year were flush for farmers while others were lean. The extension of credit was part of the business and the owner understood that he would be paid when the crop came in -- if not in money, then in produce or livestock. Many a fat hog has paid a grocery bill.

When automobiles and farm tractors became common in rural areas, country stores installed gasoline pumps in front. When farms were electrified, the stores carried tape, sockets, plugs and wire. In fact country stores, contrary to popular belief, kept up with the times. But the one thing they could not compete with were the corporations that began opening large chains of so-called convenience stores. The country stores like their city cousin, the neighborhood grocery, began to disappear, replaced by 7-Elevens and similar establishments.

There are still country stores around, but they are few and far between. For instance, the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, has been in business since 1883. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Yesterday, it catered to farmers. Today, it caters to hikers and tourists.

Owner Allen Mast is the great-grandson of W.W. Mast, the store's original owner. He said the store used to sell everything from "cradles to caskets". But that's all changed now -- except for one thing, perhaps the most important of all. "Our biggest selling point," Mast said, "is 110 percent customer service. That's what makes us different and it's the only way we can compete with the big stores."

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