In a world of mass marketing and big-box retailers, a smattering of general stores connect us to a simpler time.
If weathered walls could talk, a handful of old-timey stores across North Carolina would weave a nostalgic tale leading back to when a town’s general store served as the community’s hub, where folks gathered to stock up on supplies and swap stories.
Most general stores, overwhelmed by the retail behemoths of urban development, have sold their last fistful of penny candy and closed their doors. Across the Old North State, however, a pulse still beats in several homey establishments, offering respite from modern society’s hectic pace.
Buchanan’s Store, Manson
Memories flow as Lucy “Cookie” Currin talks about Buchanan’s Store, a Warren County landmark that’s been in operation since 1878, when her grandfather, Robert Lee Buchanan, and his brothers, opened it.
Currin treasures the ledgers she has from the first year. An April 13 entry reveals how times have changed — 15 yards of calico fabric at 6 cents a yard. Another transaction on March 22, 1883, totaled five fishhooks for 4 pennies, two plow bolts for 2 cents, and $1 for a pair of pants.
“Buchanan’s Store has changed to meet the needs of customers over the years, but the heart and soul of the store has remained the same,” Currin says. “You can get everything from moon pies to pickled pigs’ feet to filet mignon. If you can’t find it, it doesn’t mean they don’t have it. Wilson will know where it is.” Wilson Fleming leases the building from Currin and has run the store for 40 years.
Closing only for Christmas, Buchanan’s appears frozen in time — a nostalgic fixture for people in the community, as well as for travelers. The front door, wooden floors, and counters are original. “It’s the same as it has been; not much has changed,” says Johnny Fleming, Wilson’s son.
“There are big rounds of cheese in the store. I’ll go over and get cheese and bologna and a slice of bread,” Currin says. “I’ll just sit on the porch and be thankful there’s still a way of life like this now. The memories I had as a child, my four children had, and now my five grandchildren are getting the same memories.”
A few years ago, Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated provided a store sign that misnamed the store “Buchanan’s Grocery.” “It’s always been Buchanan’s Store,” says Currin. “I let that sign stay up too long, but I’ve had it corrected.”
When Tar Heel artist Bob Pittman painted a portrait of the store, the grocery sign was prominent. “When he came out to paint Buchanan’s Store, he didn’t talk to me first,” says Currin. “That’s not a complaint; I praise the Lord we got that painting. But I had him do an original over for me that says, ‘Buchanan’s Store.’”
6547 Drewry Virginia Line Road
Manson, N.C. 27553
Fred’s General Mercantile, Beech Mountain
For about 25 years, Fred Pfohl kept the key to his store on Beech Mountain Parkway under a trash can. If someone needed something out of Fred’s General Mercantile during off hours, they’d call, tell him what they were getting, and say, “I’ll pay you in the morning.” Fred is a little more careful about security today, but he says he never had any problems.
Fred and his wife, Margie, celebrate 30 years of business this year. For the first 20 or so, the Pfohls raised five children in the rooms above the store, an inviting gray structure with a red-metal roof. Today, they live about a mile and a half down the road but maintain their original schedule. The business has been open every day since February 9, 1979, with the motto, “If you don’t see it, ask for it. If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
Customers can wind their way through three packed floors — about 7,500 square feet of space. The main floor overflows with items like outdoor clothing, grocery staples, gourmet food, a full line of hardware supplies, and a collection of regional books, maps, and newspapers. “We carry The Charlotte Observer, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as local papers,” says Pfohl. “During peak season, we usually have a list on Sunday mornings to save 250 Charlotte Observer newspapers for folks so they don’t have to get out of bed too early.”
Upstairs, customers browse among Department 56 Snow Village and Snowbabies collectibles and an array of Swiss Army knives. Downstairs, a full deli offers homemade soups, sandwiches, and baked goods. On the bottom floor, customers find ski and snowboard rentals, as well as outdoor clothing and accessories.
“Our store is a place that a lot of people had a hand in making it what it is today,” says Pfohl. “We’re a work in progress that hopefully will be around for a long time to come. We’re a focal point in the community.”
Fred’s General Mercantile
501 Beech Mountain Parkway
Beech Mountain, N.C. 28604
Ronnie’s Country Store, Winston-Salem
When Ronnie Horton shows up for work at 6:30 a.m., customers are waiting. “We’ve got people who come in here every day,” he says. “It’s a gathering place. They like to come and talk.” And Ronnie is happy to oblige and pull out folding chairs for them.
Sitting at the corner of Cherry and 7th streets, the store has been a consistent presence since 1925 when William Glenn White opened W.G. White & Co. The original store burned in 1969, and the business reopened across the street. W.G. died at age 90 in 1991, and the store passed to his grandson, Charlie Lawrence Jr., and a second cousin, Doug White, who were partners in the business. They ran it until November 1994, when they sold it to Horton.
Other than a name change, the store remains much as it always has. Whole hams hang from wooden beams, and customers still arrive, empty jars in hand, to dip homemade blackstrap molasses out of a 55-gallon drum. “Country ham is the thing that has made this store,” says Horton. “In November and December, we sell 2,500 hams.” And the store goes through four to five drums of molasses in a year.
Other popular items include peanuts, homemade jams and jellies, and barrels of dried beans and hard candies. In the days leading up to New Year’s, Horton will sell 600 pounds of black-eyed peas, 25 cases of hog jowls, and 261 boxes of greens, as customers shop for their traditional good-luck meal. If cooks need any help putting ingredients together, Horton also sells two cookbooks he’s published: In Remembrance of Mom: A Collection of Family Recipes, and Country Cooking: Ronnie’s Country Store Favorites, which showcases customers’ recipes.
“We have a lot of good cooks who come in here,” Horton says.
Ronnie’s Country Store
642 North Cherry Street
Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101
N.C. Clampitt Hardware, Bryson City
Monty Clampitt, who went to work in his father’s hardware store as a teen, remembers when people took the time to visit when they came to town.
“There was a box in front of the stove at the old store they would use as a spittoon,” he says. “Builders come through early in the morning now. They might come by and get a cup of coffee and talk for a minute, but life is different than it used to be. Everyone’s in a hurry now.”
The elder Clampitt, Norman operated N.C. Clampitt Hardware on Main Street in Bryson City from the early 1960s to 1973, when Monty and his wife, Diana, bought it. But the original building on Main Street dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when it housed M.C. Close Hardware. The store is the oldest continually operating business in Bryson City.
“It was a traditional hardware store until 1982,” says Clampitt, a Bryson County native. “We moved the basic hardware and lumber supplies into a larger building [Clampitt Ace Hardware], and the original store is now kind of a general merchandise store.” Carhartt work clothes sell well in winter months, while Aladdin lanterns and camping supplies take center stage in summer.
Like any good general store, N.C. Clampitt Hardware’s aisles carry a large selection of housewares and some corner-store classics. “We have some of the old-fashioned candies,” Clampitt says, “and we have a line of canned food [with] different kinds of pickles, jams, jellies and spreads,” and local honey.
N.C. Clampitt Hardware
111 Main Street
Bryson City, N.C. 28713
Z.A.K.’S of Mallardtown USA, Trenton
“Coming here is like going to grandma’s house,” says Zack Koonce, owner of Z.A.K.’S, a newer old-fashioned store. “It’s such a secure, homey feeling. After the [September 11 terrorist attacks], I told my wife, ‘This is not going to be good for business.’ But that weekend we were packed. I couldn’t believe it.”
Zack and his wife, JoAnn, began a home-show jewelry business in 1992. As jewelry sales grew, the couple decided to build a store next to their house, which was built in 1890 and was originally the home of Zack’s grandparents. Constructed to resemble an old tobacco barn, the store opened for business in 1997 and is stocked with jewelry, Yankee candles, Boyds Bears, nostalgic toys, old-fashioned candy, John Deere products, Paula Deen cookbooks, and tasty treats from The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg.
Bluegrass music plays softly in the background, and candles release pie-in-the-oven aromas. Visitors, especially children, also enjoy the sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, and pigs outside on the Koonce’s surrounding farm.
Stores like Z.A.K.’S offer more than a collection of goods. “I think people are looking for something that makes them feel good, along with that security feeling,” Zack says. “Nobody is worried when they’re out here. They stay and hang around.”
Because Zack and JoAnn both work full-time jobs, Z.A.K.’S is open only on Saturday, except during November and December, when the store is open Thursday through Sunday. They will open by appointment as well and encourage folks to call for directions.
Z.A.K.’S of Mallardtown USA
1553 Ten Mile Fork Road
Trenton, N.C. 28585
The Seniors Country Store, Welcome
When the Davidson County Department of Senior Services decided to close the unprofitable Seniors Country Store in 2002, the county’s senior citizens had other ideas.
“We felt it was an injustice to shut us down,” says Irene Mimlitsch, a volunteer at the store, which opened in 1976. “We said, ‘Let’s organize and take it over.’ We run it now as an independent nonprofit seniors group.”
Operated completely by volunteers, the store offers a treasure trove of crafts and gifts, all made by area seniors — hand-stitched quilts, baby clothing, bird houses, carved wooden toys, cloth dolls with hand-sewn clothes and embroidered faces, and linens. Jars of jams, jellies, preserves, and canned vegetables line the shelves.
“This store gives seniors an incentive to get out of bed in the morning,” says Mimlitsch, who serves as secretary of the nonprofit group. “It’s all on a consignment basis. Some people can pay a light bill with the money they make or buy a bottle of medicine or reinvest in other craft supplies.”
The seniors’ efforts have paid off. The group recently expanded and doubled its sales space. Currently, more than 100 crafters market their wares here.
The Seniors Country Store
6039 Old Highway 52
Welcome, N.C. 27295
Marla Hardee Milling writes from her home in Asheville.