It’s hard to find an old country store in operation these days. I see some old ones here and there, mostly boarded up, abandoned and run down. I asked some folks on Facebook if they knew of any that were still open. I got all sorts of responses. Some folks suggested Cracker Barrel and I had to laugh! Clearly these people are much younger than me or not from around here. I mentioned worn wooden floors and hoop cheese and there were folks who knew just what I meant. They gave me some good leads and I guess I’ll have to make some day trips to see some of them.
The country stores I knew were, most times, wooden structures that could be of any size or shape. Some could look fairly ramshackle – as if they might fall down in a big gust of wind – but they never did. They almost always had two gas pumps out front. The interiors were dark and the plank floors creaked somewhere or other and often slanted or sagged at some point. Usually the stores were heated with a wood stove that groaned and crackled in the winter and welcomed cold hands to be ritually rubbed together. Or there might be a more updated heating system like a fancy Siegler oil heater. In the middle of summer fans blew the stale air around to no avail. Screen doors mostly kept the flies outside. Shelves contained all sorts of offerings and varied from store to store. You could count on them having milk, bread, canned goods, hoop cheese, pickled eggs, salted peanuts, nabs and chips. Anything else was a toss up – unless, of course, it was a store that you frequented and then you’d pretty much know what they’d be likely to have.
My Uncle Macon’s store would have chitlins in the fall after hog killing and fresh oysters from Atlantic Beach in the months with an ‘r’ in them. Daddy would stop by there after Prayer Meeting on Thursday nights on the way home. Mama didn’t allow many snacks and sodas were a treat. So when I’d see Daddy coming back to the car with a carton of RC Crown colas and a brown bag with some tasty snack it was a real celebration!
Peck Gordon’s store was a welcome sight in the summers when I barned tobacco. The summer that I helped Joe and Alice Pulley it was a place to choose a much-deserved treat. But the summer I barned with Charles and Rose Chamblee it was a veritable banquet table at least once a week. Rather than a home cooked meal that was the usual midday fare for tobacco workers Rose rebelled at least one day a week – whether it was because she disliked cooking and/or because she also had 5 children and just needed a break I didn’t know or care. I was a kid and being let loose in a country store to gather whatever I deigned nutritious was completely foreign to me and I was practically giddy with the possibilities. Initially, I chose my most favorite things: an enormous dill pickle, potato chips, a tin of deviled ham, a Hostess twinkie and a Nehi Grape soda. I was in heaven! Of course, I was dying of thirst not long after we started back to work and could hardly wait for the afternoon snack break when I could guzzle cups of water and devour a pack of nabs. After a few more bad decisions, I learned to hydrate myself if I was to indulge in a Salt Lick for my meal and to choose items that would give sustained energy. Rather than a dill pickle I chose the pickled eggs. Along with whatever I chose I started adding a slice of hoop cheese. Nobody discussed the food pyramid. I just figured it out. The adults in that crowd figured if you were old enough to get up at 4 in the morning and work and sweat ‘til dark, you were old enough to make your own choices at meal time. The privilege taught me more than any lesson in school.
My Uncle Otha’s store was small. There were no aisles. Food stuffs were displayed on the shelves which lined the walls. The counter was filled with crackers, chips and an assortment of cakes and candies. Ice boxes kept the drinks chilled and delicious. His store had a nice porch on the front for the men to sit and gossip and spit. In the winter they gathered inside around a pot bellied stove. The store was right next door to their house and my cousins came and went at their leisure. I was always amazed at their easy access to such treasure. Whenever I visited I would walk over from the house with my cousin Jean who seemed to know exactly what she wanted and never had to linger in her decision-making. I tried to be as cool as she appeared but, frankly, I was overwhelmed with all the choices. Whatever I chose Uncle Otha would wink, nod and wave me away with his chubby hand. I never had to pay for my treat and I felt honored – as if a king had just granted me a favor. Jean told me that she had a Pepsi every morning for breakfast and I was shocked by her announcement. Really? Every morning? Even before school? Yep. When I told my mother she shook her head and talked about good nutrition. I was unmoved. I thought Jean was one of the luckiest girls I knew.
Nowadays country stores as I knew them have given way to places like Sheets, 7-Eleven, Mini-Marts, Circle K and the like. They have plenty of groceries, toys and what all but absolutely none of the ambiance. Not to mention the sense of community that has been lost. Where do folks gather nowadays? Facebook, I suppose.