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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

No. 38 More than just a store!

Every neighborhood had a store, some more than one. In ours we had three --- four if you add in Miss Georgie's cafe. Most of these were so small in size and scope that they might not even be counted as a store today, but small as they were they were a vital part of our community. They were open Monday thru Saturday, but almost all of them were closed on Sunday. Most of them were ready for business on or before 7:00 in the morning, but only a few of them were open after 7:00 in the evening. None of them sold beer or any alcohol products until late in the 1970s.

Some of them may have had a few unique specialty items or services, but all of them had to have the basic offering of soft drinks (just "drinks" to us), bread, eggs, sugar, canned milk, canned beans, bologna, candy & gum, pickles in a jar, sweet cakes and nabs, potato chips & peanuts, and at least some coffee & tobacco products. Even the gas and service stations had to offer the drinks, potato chips, peanuts and cakes.

The drinks and meats were kept in a refrigerated chest with a sliding door. There was, either on the chest itself or fastened to the counter, an opener for removing the "ale stoppers" that were collected and then used to fill potholes near the road. Everything else was kept on shelves that lined the wall or on the counter that separated the shoppers from the one whose name was on the door. The entire inventory was open to view and if you did not see it, it wasn't available. I can't imagine that anything was financed by the store owners --- they had to pay for their stuff before they could show it or sell it. But there were a steady group of "drummers" (I assume they were called that because of their efforts at “drumming” up business) stopping by to take orders for store supplies.

All sales were cash-n-carry, or at least were intended to be. But almost every store had "informal" charge accounts that were supposed to be paid up every week, or every two weeks if someone was lucky enough to have a real job with a regular paycheck. There was on the Island an expression for using credit to buy things, from small items like candy to major purchases like a car or even a house that I am unsure was used anywhere else. It was "run in debt," as in, "did you pay cash for that or did you run in debt for it?" I don't recall that I have ever heard that phrase used anywhere else but here, but I can assure you that it was used by almost everyone I knew growing up.

With some credit customers, weeks sometimes stretched into months and even years. I recall being there one morning when a patron who carried a long overdue account explained to Edith Lewis that because she had "been saved and forgiven of her sins and her debts, she no longer felt obliged to pay on her account." "That's good for you," Edith responded with her signature raspy voice, "but how am I supposed to pay the drummer when he wants his money?"

Taken together, the various stores served to make the Island a self-sustaining community for well over half a century. Trips to “town” were reserved for those very few things, mostly clothing and hardware, that were unavailable on a local shelf. Thus it was that many Islanders, including my father, got along nicely without a car until as late as the early 70s.

Counting and naming the stores is a moving target, since many of the stores of the 40's and 50's had closed by the time I became aware, and others sprang up in the early 60's, spurred by the relative prosperity of those years. So my listing is based mainly upon my own personal recollections and experiences.

Coming on the Island, about half a mile from the bridge on the right, was Claude Brooks' store. His was loaded with all kinds of stuff inlcuding groceries and some basic hardware. It was known for having the coldest drinks — with maybe even a sliver of ice at the cap. Claude stayed in his store till late in the evening, sometimes until after midnight, and was a place to go if you needed anything much after the sun went down.

Also at the "westard," right at the bend of Red Hill, Luther Yeomans had one of the larger stores. Made of concrete blocks, with a high ceiling and big shelves, it had closed its doors by the time I came of age, but remains until today as a landmark place when giving directions in that vicinity.

Fammie Lee Willis had a small shop just past Luther's that was known for her ice cream cones, even as late as when I had children of my own. But Clarence Willis' store, half a mile between Red Hill and our house was a focal point of that neighborhood for several generations. Clarence had sno' cones (snow balls) in at least ten different flavors.

Once past the three stores in our neighborhood (I tell about them later) there was Carl's store. Owned by Carl Lewis, it was in its day the largest and most multi-faceted business on the Island. It even had a bowling ally with hand-placed pins, as well as supplies and equipment for both fishermen and boatbuilders.

At the ferry dock intersection there were three more stores and the showhouse (movie theater) on the southeast corner. One of the Island's landmark places, Cleveland Davis' store, had been on the south end of the road and next to the original post office, but all that was left by the time I came along was the fish house still run by his son, Henry. Yet at the crossroads there were three shops that peddled general merchandise. Henry ran one of those (NW corner) that was later expanded into a Richfiled gas station run by Fate (Jones) Jr. Garfield Emery's store (NE Corner) eventually became the full service gas station of R. J. Chadwick and Perry Guthrie (later just E. B. Gillikin's).

But it was Fillmore's (Lawrence) store at the southwest corner that was a true gathering place in my youth, especially for young boys and men. There were two pool tables in the back, and two gas pumps out front, and a heavy-set and friendly man behind the counter who had the inside scoop on everything that was going on from Red Hill to Shell Point. Groups of a dozen or more would loiter in and around his tables, on his drink boxes, or leaning against his front facade. On Friday and Saturday night, if anything was happening at the Island, more than likely it was happening there.

Just past the theater was the post office, at least until I was a teenager, and then a store run and owned by Billy Best. It could be said that this little patch of businesses was the closest we had to a real "downtown." Billy's store was adjacent to where Charlie Davis' store had once been. In fact, Billy started out in that same building  but later built a new one of his own, levelling the old one and using that space as a parking area. (It is worth mentioning that none of the other stores until Billy's ever had a designated parking area other than just their immediate road front. Since so few families even had cars, I assume that there were better uses for the spaces that latter became an absolute necessity.) With his new building completed, early in the 1960's, Billy's became the Island's first true grocery store. Billy had worked with a grocer in Beaufort before marrying an Island girl (Dawn Willis) and moving here more than a decade earlier. His new store had freezers as well as refrigerators, and even a butcher shop in the back. Billy worked the counter all day long, and well into the evening, and it could be said that he was the one man who knew of, and about, almost every single person on the Island — even most of the visitors.

Not far past Billy's and adjacent to his wife, Myrtle's cafe, was Donnie Yeoman's store. Because the two buildings were joined, and had a connecting door, Donnie's place and Myrtle's were considered as one and the same. The hamburgers and milk shakes that were always on the menu at the latter, and the special smells that came from her window, meant that you were always hungry any time you passed by, even if in a car.

The final store at the Eastard was run by Tommie Lewis, and it was almost all the way to Shell Point. It closed before I came to know very much of it. My only memories are of the long aisles that I walked down when I spent a Saturday morning there with my father. As Tax Lister for the Island, he would camp out in the various stories on Saturday mornings each January to give locals a place to declare their property. Once in a while he would take me with him.

All of these local shops played some part in creating the community enviornment in which I grew up. But it was the three stores between the REA building and Georgie's cafe that were an actual part of our neighborhood and were the only real "shopping mall" of my youth. All were on the north side of the road, but were close enough that you could hear conversations there while sitting on my Mama's front porch. (see post no. 8 about “Prince and the fudgesickles.”)

Dallas Guthrie's store, just a little to the west of our house, was a wood frame building with one long wooden counter that stretched almost the entire length of the room (maybe thirty feet). Along with his wife, "Little" Ollie, and his son, Dallas Daniel (see post no. 14) he served up only the very basic staples of life, and did it as both family and friends. Especially when "Dack" (Dallas Daniel) was behind the counter, neighborhood boys would gather there almost in packs. Among the specialty items that Dallas carried was one that was especially important to me — baseball cards.

Headed east from our house, less than fifty yards, was Edith Lewis' store. It earlier had been run by her cousin, Raymond, but by the time I came along it was the property of Edith and her husband, Mart. When Mama sent me "to the store" for something, unless she told me otherwise, I knew she meant that I should be headed to Edith's. Her inventory was almost entirely the same as Dallases, but her buildng was smaller and made of concrete blocks. It was here that we gathered to meet the school bus every morning, and where we were dropped off by the same bus each afternoon.

The final store that was imprinted on my memory as a boy was that of my cousin Norman Hancock, directly across the road from our house. It was in the very same location where my grandfather Charlie (Ole' Pa) had run a store for almost half a century. When our grandfather died, Norman eventually demolished the old building and opened what he at first called "The Hobby Shop." For a while he sold hunting and fishing supplies, including decoys & ammunition and rods, reels, and tackle, He even had a franchise for Chrysler power boats and motors. But after just a few years he gave up on the sporting business and reverted to the general staples that were the life blood of every other Island store. By then it was called just "Norman's,” and like the others, offered just the standard fare of basic staples and hardware, plus a sno’ ball machine that rivaled Clarence’s for its variety of flavors.

At Dallases, Edith’s & at Norman’s, the people of my small world would gather not just to shop but to talk. It was in the talking and listening that people kept in touch and remained as much friends as they were family and neighbors. Stories heard there were relayed around the dinner table or on the porch. Later they made their way to the fish house, or the net spread, or the long-haul set. Then the same stories bounced back again, maybe with some different or added details, to the circle of chairs that sat around the heater or in front of the counter in the store. The vitality of the stories added a similar vitality to the very lives they described and told of. Thus it can be said that these little stores offered much more than just bread and beans, and a few other staples of life – they conveyed the very fabric of what made us a community — our shared experience!

1 comment:

  1. I wish we had an "Island Marker" project to at least remind us of all the enterprise that has taken place "on our little island" over the years. Between the stores that you have described, restaurants and cafes, fish houses, boatyards, barbershops, beauty shops, a clinic and dentist office, Hallie Wagoner's fabric store, gift shops - remember Kay Davis' Cape Lookout Gift Shop - this island has held a spirit of entrepreneurship that I don't feel anymore. The bridge has made it too easy to be part of the mainland and caused us to lose our islandness ... Can't help but be sad about that. Places like the new Island Ice Cream Hut is what has made us what we are .. We need to support our island businesses!