Country stores are gone but not forgotten
Published 5:54 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2020
A community newspaper covers everything from bad weather and failed crops to community celebrations.
Local journalists also cover changes in local culture, but those changes often occur so slowly that the working reporter only looks at bits and pieces of them, one at a time, and frequently doesn’t even realize the change that’s occurred until it’s long past. It’s just the nature of a newspaper.
That’s how it was with country stores. I grew up on a farm on Red Point Road (Hwy. 10) southeast of what was then Smithfield’s town limits.
(Those under 70 years of age know that road as Benn’s Church Boulevard, but it was Red Point Road for several hundred years before the county created street names for 911 addresses. Naming streets preserved some history and obliterated some other.)
A little more than a mile south of where we lived was and is the Benn’s Church intersection, and on its west side back in those days sat Frank Latimore’s Store. Further down Hwy. 10 was Quincy Gilliam’s Store, and still further along was Barbee Gilliam’s store, situated on the Nansemond County line.
They were just three of the dozens of country stores that served rural communities throughout Isle of Wight. During their time, these pre-modern convenience stores sold gasoline, motor oil and other internal combustion necessities. They also sold food staples, including canned goods as well as cured meat, cheese and — delightfully — cold soft drinks and ice cream.
Throughout the early and mid-20th century, these stores flourished as basic grocer, dry goods supplier and key source of community gossip for rural areas. Often, they also had a community post office tucked away in a corner. Benn’s Church was a postmark in those days, and mail was delivered to Latimore’s. In Carrollton, it went to Joe Jordan’s Store (still standing, but vacant and in poor condition.)
Nearly every country store had a wooden bench or two on a front porch or under a gas pump awning. There, farmers gathered after long work days to worry about the dry weather in summer, or wet weather in the fall, about the abysmal price of hogs and the shortage of corn to feed them.
There they complained about politicians and politics, local, state and national, and to that store they often returned in the fall to vote and register their displeasure.
Isle of Wight was but a microcosm of rural counties everywhere, and country stores could be found throughout the United States, from bayou roads to mountain trails.
Country stores, and the intersections where they sat, often carried the name of the store owner, and those names in some instances became fixed in history. You can still find people who refer to Tommy Delk’s Corner or Tommy Delk’s Store, but you’d be hard pressed to find many who recall much about the store that occupied that corner on Mill Swamp Road decades ago.
Country stores were still doing pretty well when I left the farm and the weeding hoe in 1964 to try my hand at writing. When I returned eight years later, things had begun to change, but it wasn’t terribly noticeable.
About the time I joined the Times in 1972, however, a succession of country store robberies occurred. They began that summer and continued through the years of the 1970s. Several store owners were injured, some quite seriously, either shot or beaten by those doing the robbing.
Not coincidentally, unemployment was climbing rapidly during that period. It doesn’t excuse the robberies, but it does help to explain the cultural context.
Meanwhile, the world of commerce was changing dramatically. The age of the supermarket had arrived and offered a variety of food the local markets could never provide, and generally at prices they couldn’t match.
Within a decade, the era of the country store was all but over. A few hung on, but their time had passed.
What goes around does seem to come around, and today Dollar General is becoming the new country store in many respects, but gone are the wooden benches, the 8-ounce Coca Cola and Nehi in chilled water coolers, the postmistress who knew everyone and the postmarks they stamped.
Local historian Carolyn Keen has compiled much of the history of country stores in the region and has written what promises to be an important book on the subject. My name’s in the hat for a copy because I am confident it will document this cultural change far better than I have over the years.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.