Store for Sale
By Dave Walker
I have a cookbook that is published by a general store in the mountains of North Carolina. Inset into the first page are two older men moving bottle-cap checkers across a checkerboard before a large potbellied stove, just like my brother and I play checkers there. I cannot remember when we first went to the store because it has always been a part of my memory. It is a place that I have ritualized. I seek it out with each visit to the small unincorporated community where my grandmother was born and where my family still holds land. It is a very real place, but I have placed it in my imagination as a perfect community. This dream is rooted in how I imagine my grandmother as a child. She would come to this store when she was a girl to trade chickens and ginseng for candy and shoes. It is where the men of my family would sit before the potbellied stove and tell jokes and discuss politics.
Now I often return to the store to keep watch, although I have no true ownership—except for over my nostalgia, my pain over something lost. Thomas Wolfe writes, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood...back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems and things which once seemed everlasting but are changing all the time—back home to escapes of Time and Memory.” Nonetheless, I want to return to a place where I know my community and it knows me. I am searching for something permanent and safe in the past. I am not alone in this search, nor alone in my ritualization of the Original Mast General Store; others also come looking for what was lost. We consume the space. We breathe deep in the dust that has thoughtfully gathered in the display cases. We want to gradually wear down by the warm stove with the tattered calendars of decades past.
I moved to the mountains last summer for graduate school. As I waited for classes to begin, I started a small garden on my family’s land, cutting the fence posts from the locust stands. I wanted to do right by it as I reclaimed the abandoned meadow. I wanted to feel the cut grass and soft earth and “purchase rurality itself,” as Ann Kingsolver writes. I stop by the store with every trip into Valle Crucis, just as my family did in my youth. No matter how overgrown our property became with time or how crowded the hillside became with Lincoln log cabins, the store remained with its peeling white paint. When I was younger, I did not know that this space was constructed, designed to be attractive for me as a consumer. But now as an adult, I search for the community that I imagine gathered by the potbellied stove.
Built around 1872, the store grew with several generations of the Mast family until the 1970s, which marked a substantial change within the community. The Mast General Store’s outdated agrarian-business model seemed to jeopardize its fate with each season. For much of the decade a large sign hung on its exterior: Sᴛᴏʀᴇ Fᴏʀ Sᴀʟᴇ. When the store closed from 1977-1980, the post office located in the rear of the store also left, and Valle Crucis lost its name. This was chronicled heavily by the local newspaper and regularly by North Carolina piedmont dailies, which began to publish nostalgic stories featuring the store and its perennial demise with titles like “Throngs Sip Cider, Bring Back Mast’s Good Old Days” and “Ol’ Country Store Hain’t What It Was.” The store, the efforts to save it, the articles, the growing crowds of tourists traveling to Valle Crucis for its pastoral landscape represent a trope enacted by my parents generation. They sought healing from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal by returning to the land. These back-to-the-landers bought farms, read Mother Earth News, and tried to live romantic, intentional lives that echoed American frontierism.
My friends and I are drawn to this place because of its rurality, much like our parents were. Our romanticism mirrors theirs. We too are escaping from war, cynicism, and injustice. We find safety and authenticity in close communities, lost cultural traditions, and food grown without industry. Appalachian sociologist John Stephenson writes that: “Sense of place lends itself to the commodity form just as readily as any object, so that place becomes imaged, hyped, brokered, and marketed just as do rock singers, cigarettes, automobiles, and politicians,” and that this “ highly marketable ‘sense of place’ has been identified with Blue Ridge Appalachia (and places like it), converting the actual place into a commodity whose signs or meanings and their consumption are more important than the place itself.” What Stephenson wrote in 1984 still holds true today with the region and the Original Mast General Store; both are sold as products for the consumer who desires to be completely immersed in another time. The community can become molded to fit the outsiders’ nostalgic needs, but this shift can dislocate the preexisting community from how it perceives itself and places value on its own authenticity. This is an attractive paradigm for me. It allows me to be a protector and savior of an exploited community. However, this simple application of colonialism is inflexible and leaves little room for the community to exercise agency. Change can generate new ideas and possibilities, just as it can bring subjugation.
The post office branch offers the greatest example of mutualism. On weekends throughout the year, the parking lot swells with cars from out-of-state, as it did on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Many of the cars held Christmas trees atop their roofs from the area’s choose-and-cut farms, and the store was crowded as families moved in clusters among the display cases and shelves filled with merchandise. As I filled out a postcard by the post office, groups squeezed past me in the tight space. Each remarked, almost with a rhythm, “This is still a working post office. Can you believe that?” and “Here’s the old post office. This is how people used to come get their mail. People around here still do it that way.”
Below the block of post office boxes reads a sign: Pʟᴇᴀsᴇ Dᴏ Nᴏᴛ Oᴘᴇɴ Mᴀɪʟʙᴏxᴇs. Tʜɪs ɪs ᴀ Wᴏʀᴋɪɴɢ Pᴏsᴛ Oғғɪᴄᴇ. P.O. Boxes are desirable in Valle Crucis, and there is currently a wait list to hold one. They give the owner a legitimate claim to his place in the community. Otherwise, mail delivered to homes within yards of the store is designated for either Vilas or Banner Elk. This mattered to the community when it fought to save the store; when the current owners sought to reclaim the store to its earlier image, they successfully petitioned for the post office’s return.
I often write postcards from the store. I attempt to make a pattern of my visits because I want to be recognized and become a part of the space. When I do this, I nearly always buy a Honeybun and a ginger ale, eating it by the potbellied stove in the center of the store. One day at the store, I saw a local man that I had been wanting to speak with for some time. I had asked a woman who knows the store very well if anyone hangs out there regularly, and she had said, “Oh yes,” and listed several names and what they do when they come into the store. One older man comes into the store every morning and flips a coin with an employee behind the desk to see whether or not he will pay for his purchase. Another man, the man I saw when I walked in, comes every day to eat his baloney lunch in a wooden chair by the checkerboard and potbellied stove.
I see him as a gateway into the community. A watcher, a constant that sees changes come and go, recording each movement. On this day though, he was not eating when I saw him, but sitting in the same seat facing the row of post office boxes; a teenage boy sat in the chair opposite him. The local man was speaking to a white-haired man his same age, who was sitting on a nearby bench. I slid onto the bench and began eating my snack. They spoke about the highways running through Atlanta. The man on the bench was from a small town outside of Atlanta, and as the local man placed this town, they spoke about the traffic, the 12 lane highways running through Atlanta, numbering them off.
The Atlanta man’s wife approached, and he excused himself from the conversation as he and his wife went about the store. I sat in silence, still listening as inconspicuously as I could, to the local man continue his discourse on Atlanta’s maddening traffic to the teenager. After several minutes, a new man poked his head around the corner nearest me and said, “What’s going on here?” They knew each other and spoke of people each knew. The men then began to discuss the newer man’s grave digging business. And the group left together shortly afterwards. As I sat alone by the stove, warm from the cold weather outside, a middle-aged couple approached the stove. The woman backed off and took several pictures of the man as he posed before the stove.
Stephen Foster writes in the “Epilogue” of The Past Is Another Country, “As I drove into the county, I felt myself to be entering a charmed circle. I felt a rush of excitement as I passed a small sign, Entering Ashe County. Of course, nothing delimits this space but a line on a map and my invented notion of the place. By doing anthropology there, I had turned the county into a charged symbol, a complex representation that had come to stand for a land, a spirit of place, a singular gateway to an encounter with Otherness.” I had done this—the stove, the store, my ritual. I had taken a photograph, much like the middle-aged couple had. Yet while they wanted to capture a place caught in the past, I wanted to capture an exploited community that I could protect and save.
I hadn’t spoken to the man who eats his lunch at the store every day because I feared interrupting, disturbing the fabric of the place. But in truth, the store had been reformed to fit mass outsider consumption thirty years ago. More tourists now occupy the store than local residents, and despite this, it remains a powerful and seemingly authentic rural symbol. While I still search for the community that I imagined existed, I understand that my timeless, pastoral image of the general store is fabulated and can never truly become realized.
This piece originally appeared in issue 1 of The Intentional.