It is an almost balmy afternoon, the cloudless sky opening wide against the tightly wooded ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am driving west out of Charlottesville, Virginia, on a gently curving road through open farmland, passing long weathered fences, an occasional estate home, a few horse barns, and then a steeplechase off to the left. Though little more than five miles from city center, I am somehow ages away in this open countryside on Garth Road. Then, to my right, it appears unassumingly—a little white county store with green trim. Out front, a new but somehow weathered-looking sign proclaims “Hunt Country Market & Deli.”
Inside this little gas station/convenience store is more than meets the eye from the outside. There are racks filled with Virginia wine, an expansive deli serving up freshly made sandwiches with catchy names like “The Hunt Club”, local specialty food items, homemade pizza, and an atmosphere that somehow both is and isn’t that of a corner country store.
Nancy Kallander and business partner Tracy Bright have owned the little store about a year and a half. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” says Kallander with a nervous laugh when I ask why she purchased this once rundown country store. It is the same thing I hear from so many country store owners in the Blue Ridge who have managed to either hang on to these old-time traditional stores or revitalize ones that seemed doomed to rot into a long ago memory. But the fact is, many of the owners of these country stores have brought new interpretations to this nostalgic retail genre and created success for themselves in a world filled with superstores where you can get everything under the sun all in one stop.
“From Cradles to Caskets” Mast General Store
The Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, was once the Wal-Mart of yesteryear. When it opened in the late 19th century, then as the Taylor Store, it proclaimed to carry everything from cradles to caskets. And it did. Like all country stores, it offered farm equipment, clothes, dry goods, seed, food items—anything one could possibly want to get along in the mountains of western North Carolina at the turn of the century.
But like so many community stores, Mast eventually fell on hard times, succumbing to the automobile age and the convenience of large supermarkets and shopping malls. The Mast family had maintained full ownership of the store since 1913 but eventually sold it in the 1970s. The store passed through owner after owner and became less and less profitable, finally closing its doors in 1977.
That should have been the end of Mast’s story, but it wasn’t.
A couple from Winter Park, Florida, who had visited the store a few of times while vacationing in western North Carolina, purchased Mast General Store in 1979. “I thought it could be saved,” says John Cooper, who fell in love with the old store the very first time he visited it in the 1970s. “We wanted to bring it back as a general store.”
But it was a long road for John and Faye Cooper. “It wasn’t just an investment,” says Cooper. “It was a complete lifestyle change.” To save money, the Cooper family lived over the store in Valle Crucis. They reopened it in 1980 and added an annex in 1982 because they were growing so fast. While they carried traditional country store goods like seed and farm clothes, they also carried outdoor recreation clothes and camping equipment.
“Tourists seem to discover the store before the locals did,” notes Cooper. “We had very fair prices on our Woolrich clothing, and we were starting to get really big crowds.” That was no small feat for the isolated little community of Valle Crucis.
In the late 1980s, the town of Boone approached the Coopers about opening another branch of the Mast General Store in the closed Hunt’s Department Store on Main Street. The Coopers accepted the offer and opened a second store in 1988, doubling their size. “We began to get calls from other areas, people asking us to open in their towns,” says Cooper.
Pretty soon, the Coopers were on a roll, opening stores in Waynesville, Hendersonville, Asheville, and finally Greenville, South Carolina. “We’ve had a record,” says Cooper, “of opening a new store every three to four years.” Two decades after reopening the Valle Crucis store and living upstairs, the Coopers now have 260 full and part-time employees and six stores.
Cooper says the secret to their success has been in their difference from the typical department store or “big box” store. “We’re unique,” he says. “The atmosphere isn’t plastic. We have old showcases, wood floors. It evokes a memory of days gone by. We’re not something you’re going to see in a mall.”
But despite Mast General Store’s success Cooper says he and his wife weren’t sure any of it was going to work when they bought the Valle Crucis store. “We were young, so we decided to try it,” he says. They found out what customers wanted in large part by trial and error and found their Woolrich clothing line and outdoor recreation equipment were the big sellers.
Cooper is quick to note that reopening or overhauling an old-time country store isn’t for everyone and isn’t easy. “You’ve got to work long hard hours,” he says, “and you’ve got to be attentive to customers. General stores are hard because you carry such a variety of goods, and you have to keep up with it all.”
Foot tapping and storytelling Todd General Store
Sometimes the key to keeping general stores open isn’t in running them as general stores at all. While Mast keeps an inventory, particularly at its Valle Crucis store, that is still reminiscent of old-time general stores, the owners of Todd General Store in Todd, North Carolina, completely overhauled the store’s inventory when they bought it a year and a half ago.
Bob and Jenny Mann, who hail from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, moved to North Carolina in 1998, and bought the Todd General Store several years later as a second career for both of them. “It was so rundown,” says Bob Mann. “We wanted to make it into a living history of the area.” Before the Mann’s ownership, the Todd General Store was still pretty much just that—a general store with food items and dry goods, a few gifts for passing tourists, and even a neighborhood dog that wandered in and out on occasion. Already well-known for its Friday night jam sessions and serene location on the South Fork of the New River, the store offered the Manns a lot to build on.
And build they did—completely renovating the 1914 store, replacing the front deck, and adding $60,000 in inventory. The store now sells gourmet foods, local crafts, children’s toys, antiques, unusual birdhouses, antique glassware, furniture, and Christmas items. The Manns also run a little deli, offering breakfast and lunch every day and dinner on jam and storytelling nights. “We have very little general store inventory anymore,” says Mann. “Tourists are our major business. We get about 60,000 people in here a year.”
That’s quite a customer base for a little town that only came into existence because of the railroad, and then nearly died out when Norfolk & Western pulled up its tracks in the mid-1930s. Todd General Store, then known as the W.G. Cook Store, was the only business in town to survive the Depression.
But it’s not just the new inventory that has kept the Todd General Store alive in this age of mass consumerism. It’s also the Manns’ efforts to maintain two of the store’s beloved traditions—Tuesday night storytelling and Friday night jam sessions. The storytelling has become so popular that Mann says it’s not unusual to have 100 people in attendance. Tuesday nights attract major regional storytellers like Diane Hackworth, Orville Hicks, Sherry Boone, and Kelly Swanson. On months with a fifth Tuesday, the store hosts Liar’s Night, where anyone can get up and tell a tale.
Tourists and locals alike come out again on Friday evenings for old-time Appalachian music and bluegrass played by artists from around the region. Anywhere from a handful to a couple dozen musicians will show up to delight onlookers and listeners with the sounds of fiddles, hammered dulcimers, and guitars. The Friday night jamboree has become so popular that it now runs 10 months out of the year.
The Manns also host local demonstrating artists and craftspeople on the rear deck of the store and often hold book signings for regional authors, making the store into the cultural centerpiece of the sleepy Todd community. Mann says he doesn’t know if the venture is a success yet, but any business that can draw 80-100 people into the isolated little village of Todd on a Tuesday obviously has something Wal-Mart doesn’t.
Local Fare With Flair Hunt Country Deli and Market
Nancy Kallandar and Tracy Bright are quick to admit they weren’t sure what they were doing when they purchased a rundown country store on the corner of Garth Road and Free Union outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Kallander, a former engineering consultant, says, “I just wanted to do something a little different.” She and Bright, who still works as an accountant when she’s not at the store, knew of the store’s existence 11 years before they purchased it. “It was just a rundown convenience store,” notes Kallander.
But the two friends saw potential, and when the store went on the market, they bought it. With help from their husbands, they gutted the store’s kitchen and made it into a deli. “We still sell convenience items and gas,” says Kallander, “but our main focus now is food.”
Kallander says she and Bright selected a deli as their main money producer both because Kallander loves to cook and because it provides a better profit margin than convenience items. They offer deli sandwiches and pizza and also sell local specialty food items. “Local people here purchase the food,” she says, “and there are a lot of new houses going up out here, so we get a lot of construction workers in here at lunchtime as well as people who work on neighboring horse farms.”
Kallander and Bright make a point of using local providers, including Shenandoah Coffee, Albemarle Baking Company, and Mona Lisa pasta, a local caterer. They also sell Virginia-made grocery items and wines. But despite the focus on specialty foods, Kallander says most of their business is local. The store sees about 75 to 100 customers a day between 7 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m.
Kallander has been pleased so far with the little store’s success and is proud of the fact that she and Bright have helped keep a turn-of-the-century country store open. Business to the store has tripled since Kallander and Bright purchased it. “We didn’t do any advertising,” she says. “I think locals want to support small businesses, and we have an interesting niche selling specialty sandwiches.”
While Kallander admits she and Bright didn’t have any grand plan, she does have some advice for others who may be considering saving or reopening an old country store: “Find something that means something to the local people, and build on that.”
Some general stores in the southern and central Appalachians
Mast General Store
Locations in Valle Crucis, Boone, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Asheville, and Greenville
Todd General Store
Todd, North Carolina
Hunt Country Market & Deli
The Floyd Country Store