Country stores, those dinosaurs that dot the highways in disrepair with swinging rusty signs that read Esso, Mobil or Shell fell prey to the “chain” reaction, cherry slushy touting convenience stores of the 60’s.
Some country stores weathered the storm and morphed, ingraining themselves into the community as a sort of working man’s convenience store minus the brick facade. Think white clapboard with two front columns, a drive through for gasoline service, swinging old screen door, crooked stone steps and a sandy broken asphalt parking lot. Most had outside benches against the store wall, rusted oil drums for garbage cans and more pop tops on the ground than Jimmy Buffett has ever bruised his heel on and went back home. Inside; wide plank wood floors, rocking chairs and a pot belly stove tucked into a back corner were surrounded by glass cases, bins, barrels and wooden counters filled with everything from boots, laces, hoop cheese, potatoes, seeds, pecans, beans, candies, jellies, country ham, bins with nails and so much more.
Most have indeed fallen by the wayside. Highways pushed through them, big box competition edged them out, some yet operate still today under a different ruse. Restaurants like See Wee Restaurant on Hwy 17 Awendaw was a general store since 1929 until 1988. The inside of the restaurant looks very much like it did as a general store.
McConnels General Store operated in Mt. Pleasant on Highway 17, Mt.Pleasant until the owner, Mrs. Mary McConnell died at 101 years old last year.
So what does the future hold for the country store? If you google country store you are likely to come up with Dollar General, Mast General or Vermont Country Store’s. The hybrids of the country stores of past.
Food trucks, tents and Farmers Market’s provide us with the “I’m in tune with my community local vibe experience” or do they?
I am fortunate to have frequented many of these old stores in my life. The first I remember was in Davis, NC. It sat at the intersection of two roads that led to the Cedar Island ferry. My uncle would take me in his rusty old Ford and we would sit on a wooden bench outside the store with our Nehi’s or Yoo Hoo’s to escape the sugar police, my Aunt Ree. My uncle had diabetes and we were in hot pursuit of his “fix.”
Uncle Moye never seemed to worry that passerby’s or patrons would tell on him. One thing, Aunt Ree would never walk up on him she went “to town.” She said she didn’t like the smell of the store, it smelled of tobacco and woodsmoke. Big fat jars of plug and packages of snuff and cigarettes that came with coupons that you could collect and get premium gifts from a catalog.
The little store was a country girl’s palace with jars of Squirrel Nuts, Zippers, Cow Tales, Mary Janes and candy cigarettes. As I moved about over the years I was fortunate to have had one of these stores nearby in each town. So when we moved further out into the country towards Charleston’s “front porch” on the highway towards Walterboro, it was no surprise to find a bonafide good ole general store. My first visit went like this at Ace Basin Milling, Mac’s Farm Supply.
The grain silos with rusted caps lured me into the drive with my camera. The slap of the wooden front door drew me inside. I felt right at home when my feet hit the squeaky wood beams of Mac’s Farm Supply, the store smelled of earth and goodness. Clients in camos pulled up to bays to have feed and seed and corn loaded onto their truck beds while their canine companions wagged their tails and looked on from the truck cabs.
A half hour later I was still perusing. After leaving the jelly and pickle aisle I happened upon a substantial supply of snake eradication products. Creeped me out so I left there and checked out the cooler with cheeses and meats and a ice box full of Nehi’s in every flavor. Barrells and boxes held local grown pecan’s both shelled and unshelled, red and yellow apples and tuber potatoes for the farmers.
Two men rocked in chairs at the front, they hit the brakes a second when I came in. Believe me, these men know when a new person walks in the door. They’ve been in every country store since I was a little, gathered around the pot belly stove eating nabs and drinking cokes with peanuts. I am here to tell you that if you want to know anything about the community you are in, the answer is inside the walls of the country store. Better than the hair salon for carrying tales too. I never could figure out how my Daddy knew so much about everyone and hardly ever left the farm except for the trip to the general store or the hardware store. I was caught up in a story or two myself around a pot belly stove in the 70’s. The DNR would spotlight us blind down the country farm roads and catch us with a bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Wine. “Aren’t you Charles’s girl?” he asked.
The country stores doubled as full service gas stations too. When you pulled in a bell would ring inside that scooted out a proprietor in Dickie blue overhalls wearing a greasy rimmed ball cap on. He would check under the hood and clean your windows while filling up the tank.
Mac’s Farm Supply doesn’t have gas, except for propane, but they have just about everything “a settler” would need in these parts. After all the time I spent in there I ended up at the counter with a paltry bag of grits. Mac told me matter of factly that I needed to put some more stuff on the counter if I wanted to use my plastic. So I got another bag and a jar of pepper jelly. He peers over the top of his glasses at me and says “Not from these parts are you?” I grinned and told him we just moved here. He says “Witness relocation program?” I busted out laughing and have every single time I go in this store since.
Most recently, I found out why he has all the snake repelling products. I had two copperheads crawl out from under the house within 30 minutes of each other. I headed straight to Mac’s after Don shot the smithereens out of them. I went to that same counter I had hightailed it from months earlier and grabbed what I needed. I put the big bag of Snake Away on the counter and asked Mac “This stuff work?” He puts his hand on the bag and tells me “You know what? I haven’t had a single snake on that aisle since I put that there.” “Well, that’s a start, ring her up.” I told him.
I went to buy pecans for my Christmas baking on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, when I got to the counter to ring up, Mac pulled out a 2018 Mac’s Farm Supply calendar and opened it to the back page. He pulled a stamp out of his drawer and stamped the store name on December 28th and pushed it to me. Then he reached under the counter and pulled out a wooden token and gives it to me. I knew what it was when I saw it, Daddy had a few of these in his pockets back when.
“Is this a round to it?” I asked Mac.
“Yep, no excuse now, you can get a round to it. See ya on customer appreciation day, we will have food.”
We did get a round to it and went to the customer appreciation day. Mac was being humble and gracious when he invited us, he didn’t make a big to do over it. When we rounded the bend in the road I was shocked. Cars lined both sides of Cottageville Highway, and Round O Road, and the parking lots were full. Everything in the feed warehouse had been pushed back and tables were lined together 3 rows wide and 100 feet long. Every seat was full and we stood in line to get a country fare fit for a country queen. A 40 gallon pot of collards was rolling, huge trays of venison and pork BBQ were being filled and refilled, another tray of Brunswick Stew and more trays yet with pork rice. At the end of the room were tables lined with homemade pound cakes and banana pudding. I heard one man say “That’s 15 pound cakes we put out in 30 minutes that’s gone”. Each table section had a loaf of bread and hot sauce and tabasco peppers on it. They even had take out containers for people to take to those who couldn’t come or had to go back to work. The food was delicious, the company was great. There was not one single cell phone on the table, when’s the last time you saw that? Yes, it may have been customer appreciation day, but it was obvious that the appreciation was reciprocated as well, the community loves their store.
Spring dwindles, summer approaches and the days get longer. I look forward to frequenting the store to buy fresh vegetable trays, flowers and grits and hopefully get some chickens to raise.
Yeah, the hanger-on country stores may be a dwindling icon of a different era and nothing beats opening my door to find that book delivered that I want to read two days later, but — Amazon doesn’t come with a funny story and an ice cold orange Nehi.
I believe there is a place, a niche for the general and country stores in our communities. They remind us of a slower time, when we relied on each other and knew our neighbors.