How country stores are surviving in the 21st century

By Toni W. Riley
Anyone growing up in the country probably had a country store that was the center of the community. These stores were reminiscent of Mr. Godsey’s store in “The Waltons,” offering the regular grocery items but also everything from fabric to hardware. The country store also served as the gathering place for everyone to learn the news of the neighborhood. Sadly, the country store is almost extinct — the product of the times.
The remnants of these country stores are scattered across the county and visible as one drives down the highway or a country road. The abandoned buildings have a distinctive look and can be easily recognized by their design. Usually, the store was a long, narrow building sometimes two stories with no windows on either side, but windows across the front entrance and a large billboard at the top with the name of the store. There traditionally was a front porch with a rail, where store-goers would stop and chat.
Patsy Trotter, retired owner of the Social Butterfly, remembers her father Garnett Trotter’s country store on Dawson Road. The store was adjacent to the south entrance to Pennyrile Park.
“We had pretty much a “full grocery,” Patsy recalled.
She remembered selling canned goods, condiments, baking supplies, milk and frozen foods like pizzas and lunch meats. Of course, the shelves included bread, cookies, candy by the piece, potato chips, fresh fruit and, at Christmas, chocolate drops and orange slices by the pound. Also available were farm supplies, including livestock feed, dog food and fertilizer. The store had a strong and loyal customer base from tourists and campers going to Pennyrile Park, so Trotter also sold camping supplies, ice and bait.
Patsy said she still gets a Christmas card from one customer.
Outdoorsmen could also get hunting and fishing licenses at the store. Patsy laughed when she thought of the hunting stories that would regale during the winter.
The Trotter Grocery was designed slightly different than others. It had a drive-thru area at the front door, and Mr. Trotter sold gas.
Wes Parker who grew up on Miller’s Mill Road fondly remembers Matthew’s Grocery on Fort Campbell Blvd.
“Everyday we would take our morning break from farm work and go up the grocery and get a candy bar and a coke,” Parker said.
Even as an adult, he continued to visit Matthew’s Grocery and get a lunch sandwich. Mrs. Matthew’s business was mostly sandwiches, and she only kept a few staples for neighbors who ran out of something and didn’t want to go to town.
The store stopped operating when Mrs. Matthews died, but the building is still standing.
With the improvement of roads and transportation, the country stores have dwindled to only a handful, and most had to change their merchandise to meet the needs of today’s customers.
Probably the longest continual ownership of a country store goes to Sheryl Gates of Gates Grocery in Saint Elmo. She began working in the store 45 years ago in 1972 with her mother-in-law, Christine Gates, just three days after marrying Billy Gates. Ten years later, she and Billy bought out his mother, and Sheryl became the owner.
When Sheryl first started, it was a full-fledged general store selling everything from groceries to clothes, hardware, feed, seed, cigarettes and chips as well as gasoline. Now Gates Grocery is more of a convenience store with drinks, chips and snacks.
Fixing sandwiches for the lunch crowd is what keeps Sheryl in business. She has a regular group that comes in every day, but she said, “When the farmers are busy, I’m busy.”
Sheryl will feed as many as 25 during the busy farming season.
Like other country stores, Gates Grocery was at one time the mainstay of the community, but as Sheryl notes, “The community has changed.”
She remembers the days when women didn’t go to town but two to three times a week and men would come in and sit around and talk — now everyone is too busy.
Square Deal Grocery, at 5810 Newstead Road, operated by Tammy Grant has kept its doors open by offering stromboli sandwiches and using Facebook to let their customers know what’s on the lunch menu, especially when the strombolis are available. The grocery also offers breakfast.
Joey Pendleton remembers Square Deal as the center of the community. As a youngster growing up just around the corner on Canton Pike, the highlight of his day was going to Square Deal and getting bologna and crackers. During the cold months, he remembers the neighborhood men sitting around the pot bellied playing cards and checkers.
However, there seems to be one truly country store still around, the Dutch Kuntry store on Highway 1843 directly across from the Fairview Auction. When a customer walks in, the shelves are lined with products in the truest sense of the general store.
Owner Luke Shirk, who is Mennonite, purchased the store in 2010. Previously, he had been an organic dairy farmer in Iowa. He heard that Dutch Kuntry was for sale and decided to try his hand at running a general store. He mentioned the first two years where pretty tough, and he wondered if he had made the right decision, but business picked up. Shirk said he enjoys running the store, averages 140 customers a day and likes meeting people that come in.
His customers are a mix of Mennonite, Amish and civilians. He sells flours and sugar in 50- and 25-pound bags.
“Our type of people go for that — when you have a family of 12,” he said about the large bags.
He also said he has more English customers at lunch who come in for sandwiches, which is one of the specialties of the store. The meat and cheese case has a wide array to choose from for sandwiches, including Troyer cheeses from Walnut Creek, Ohio.
Another specialty is the health aisle with holistic herbs and essential oils. Shirk said he has many customers who come in for those products, even one couple from Nashville.
But the No. 1 specialty of the house is the soft serve ice cream that is only offered in the spring through October. The ice cream is definitely a local favorite, and everyone hates to see it close down for the winter.  The secret: Luke admits that they use Prairie Farm milk in the ice cream and it is higher in fat.
Finally, the store offers local homemade breads and pastries, Trigg County Sorghum and Bramble and Bee honey.
Regular customer Matt Futtrell said Dutch Country is really handy if they run out of something and don’t want to go to Hopkinsville, and all of the family vehicles had a container of gummy worms from the candy aisle.
Several products, candy, spices, noodles and pasta are sold in round plastic containers that resemble cottage cheese cartons or bags with the store name. A friendly clerk named Lorene explained the store buys in bulk, and the clerks then fill smaller containers, weigh and label them. Her responsibilities include straightening shelves, cleaning and making sandwiches. What does she like best about her job? Just like Shirk, she said, “The people,” with a bright smile.
All the stores, whether closed or still in business, carry the same theme — the people and the camaraderie that can only be found at the country store.

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