Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Country Stores



Country Stores

 

by Harry Henson

        The only thing resembling a club to which I ever belonged was a group called The East Varina Literary Society. We had four members: an expatriate East German printer; the owner of a bookstore in Richmond; the proprietor of a local gift-foods franchise; and me, at that time a substitute teacher, the least distinguished and youngest of the group.

       We congregated in a country store somewhere on a back road in eastern Henrico County. Today in the flood of suburban development I would be unable to locate the place, if it still stands, and even in the 1980s it was a challenge. The first time I went out there with the franchise magnate, we had to stop a passer-by and ask for directions.

       The man said to look for a store deep in the woods that seemed to be abandoned, grown up in weeds and on the verge of collapse.

       The building dated to antebellum times. In fact, it was said to have been the Portuguese Embassy during the Civil War, the only foreign government except for the Vatican to recognize the Confederacy.

       The building’s current ambassadors two elderly bachelor brothers. They still used kerosene lamps and iceboxes, refusing to be slaves to the electric company. Among the merchandise were items like “single trees” and slop jars. There was a cast-iron woodstove for people to sit around.

        The appeal of this establishment, for us, was not so much its status as an artifact of an earlier era as that it had the only ABC license in the state permitting customers to drink beer on the premises of a grocery. The brothers served us Pabst Blue Ribbon in returnable bottles while we discussed the subtleties of Nabokov and Isaac Singer around the stove. What the brothers thought about those discussions I can't say.

        In the second decade of the 21st century, such places are long gone, and even in the 1980s they were very rare. But when I was a teenager in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia during the early 1970s, every rural crossroad had one, each eccentric in its own way. 

        One thing I remember about the proprietors: Not a single one of them was at all welcoming.

       When you walked in, each would stare at you in what seemed to be complete disbelief, if not suspicion.   In those days I often roamed the back roads, skipping school, and frequently stopped by those establishments for cigarettes and beer. The owners, always skinny white-haired men in their seventies or eighties, would regard me narrowly. They took my money and examined it closely as if suspecting fraud.

       At the time, I dismissed those attitudes as the usual envy and suspicions of crabbed old age. I now realize that those places had a local patronage dating back generations, and the owners were not comfortable with new customers.

        They more than welcomed the regulars. The farmers or fishermen came there to eat lunch and to socialize. Large glass jars with pig's knuckles, sausages, dill pickles and other delicacies sat on worn hardwood counters.  There were big wheels of hard yellow cheese along with stacks of Uneeda biscuits. There were tins of sardines, which seemed to be the staple diet of farmers. Old-fashioned drink boxes, the type with water inside, held sodas and beer.

       Some stores still had faded New Deal stickers on the windows with the blue eagle of the National Recovery Act. No plastic at all: Everything was wood, metal or glass.

               Loungers sat around, either inside or on benches beneath shade trees. If you liked, you could always strike up a conversation. I was too shy.

       Now, though, I wish I could sit on one of those benches again for a chance to talk with a country farmer, a soft-spoken ambassador from the 19th century. 

  Harry Henson is a writer living in Richmond County.

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