Oh, How I Miss The Days of Country Stores

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PHOTO: Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon, July 1939. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Gordonton, North Carolina. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
PHOTO: Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon, July 1939. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Gordonton, North Carolina. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

I drove past the simple brown building just a handful of weeks ago, it was the first time I had seen the place since I was “knee high to a grass hopper.”

Its windows had been boarded up and the roof was showing signs of sagging — another decade or two and I imagine the structure will be no more.  The pitiful sight was a not so subtle reminder that the world I knew as a child is but a distant memory in 2019 America.  Years worth of wintry winds have blown hard against the building and in the process have swept in unimaginable changes.

So much of what were common components of every day life in rural America, perhaps not sacred but certainly special, are gone.  Leaving in their wake crumbling and vacant buildings dotted across the mountainscape.  Sadly, the old country store I remember as a child is but another victim.

Roughly a half-hour after driving past the unassuming monument to my childhood, I was strolling through the busy and bright big box store.  A place where one can buy groceries, get an oil change and purchase underwear and a fishing pole all under the same roof.  Sure, it’s convenient, but as I purchased my items and exited onto the bustling street a startling thought occurred to me: I had just gone through the busiest store in the tri-county area and had not spoken a single word to anyone, nor had anyone uttered a single word to me or even acknowledged my existence — thanks to the mandatory self checkout lane, I didn’t even see a cashier.  It was just me in a busy world, thanked only by the robotic voice of a computer for my $100+ purchase.

A far cry from how Jan would have ever dreamed of doing things back when I was a child.

Not too long ago, that same brown building I had driven past earlier that day, positioned at the intersections of two unnamed county roads was an epicenter of life.  It was our community convenience store and a step through its walls was more reminiscent to entering the living room of an old friend than the nameless, impersonal, corporate experience that accompanies today’s shopping excursions.

The local store had an official name, but I cannot recall what it was, I simply knew the place as Jan’s Store.

Its owner was someone we saw every day and she was the most important person, and popular, person in our community.  An aging and gentle soul, she was a intrinsic part of the fabric of life in rural Appalachia: whether a person was needing to purchase gas, fishing lures, beer, sodas, candy, tape, ice cream, screws, motor oil, newspapers or a thousand other oddities, her store was the place to be.

At the age of eight, my dad caught me with one of her candy bars that I had snuck out in my pocket.  After he had finished “wearing me out” with his belt, we climbed into his pickup and drove over to Jan where through sobbing and shameful tears I fumbled and choked my way through a sincere apology.  From that moment onward, Jan’s demeanor toward me changed — though she had always been pleasant to me, from that moment forward she showed even more interest in my life and developed an even greater respect for my parents.

When I graduated high school, she included in my card the very type of candy bar I had stolen a decade earlier with a handwritten note stating, “I have not forgotten!  Love, Jan”.

Corporate box stores have to a large extent elevated the quality of life in America through lower prices, greater convenience, etc., but when I think about how we have lost our sense of community and the personal element associated with our everyday transactions has all but vanished, I can’t help but feel sorry for my children and grandchildren as they’ll never know the joys of developing a relationship with people like Jan.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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