General stores: Just enough of everything

tamrawilson Uncategorized

I like old stores. There’s something about the ambiance, the friendliness, the variety in a tiny space, the hub of everyday necessity.

Last month I discovered retro store heaven: Town Hardware & General Store in Black Mountain.

Until then I’d never spent much time in Black Mountain, other than the Berliner Kindl German restaurant, which I highly recommend. Up a block on State Street is Town Hardware. It doesn’t look especially charming from the street, but one step inside and I was captivated.

My eyes were immediately drawn to kitchenware, and not run-of-the mill stuff, either. This “department” featured pie birds, zesters, juicers and adjustable metal pie crust shields—stuff I hadn’t seen in a while, if ever.  

Town’s Facebook page says it all: Enjoy our three historic buildings filled with old-time tools, great toys, practical and hard-to-find housewares, cleaning supplies, regional books, nostalgic collectibles — and of course all the necessary items for the upkeep of your home and garden.

Some of those hard-to-find housewares were canning supplies—a pressure canner, a graniteware canner, FoodSaver sealing kits, tongs, freezer jars and canning jars.  If you’ve looked for jars and lids lately, you know what I mean.

Poking around the aisles was like being a kid shopping the little “departments” of stores I used to know. There were displays of greeting cards, candy, art supplies, jellies, toys, giftwrap and such handy items as wooden drying racks and paper milkshake straws.

Dollar General can’t hold a candle to what I’m talking about. This home-grown general store isn’t another cutesy tourist trap. It’s an honest-to-goodness hardware store. Two-thirds of the building are devoted to home and garden wares and what I call hardcore plumbing supplies (pipe, screws, tools, nails, paint).

Ten minutes into the foray and I’d already picked some things to buy. Birthdays are coming up, and I couldn’t resist some children’s items for Miss Violet, my granddaughter, and a few other must-haves for others on my list. One item was a Bob Ross coffee cup that paints itself and a yellow-and-black child’s umbrella with bee antennae on top that shouted “buy me!” from a top shelf.

Rambling through a vintage hardware store is like poking through the attic of a bygone era. All the necessities, not too much of anything; just enough of everything.   

My earliest years were spent in a Midwestern farming community with a population of about 100 people. It included a grain elevator, a school, a blacksmith shop, a filling station/garage, a barber shop and the hub of the community—the general store. This is where kids walked to barefoot in the summer to purchase penny candy and popsicles and bottled soda, retrieved from a cold-water corral inside a metal tank.

The kindly storekeepers would let us step behind the counter to pick out the candy from boxes strategically placed at kid’s-eye level. My choices were usually Tootsie Rolls, root beer barrels or Bazooka bubble gum. Or, for a walk on the wild side, a box of candy cigarettes or red hots.

The storekeepers, Velma and Merlin, knew me and all of the neighborhood kids by name, and our parents’ too, for when we wanted to put our treats “on the bill.”

This old store was way more than candy. It was a place to swap news, buy bacon sliced to order, purchase a Fudgesicle or a bottle of Orange Crush on a hot August afternoon. Or, if you were an adult, a greeting card in a pinch or kitchen supplies when you ran out and didn’t have the car to drive nine miles to town.

The back aisle was lined with wooden shelves containing such basics as overalls and bolts of cloth, buttons, shoe laces and work gloves. The post office in the back corner offered rented mailboxes with combination locks my mother never got the hang of.

On this store’s school supplies shelf I found my first writing tablet. I chose the one with a glamorous photo of Elizabeth Taylor on the cover, much to my mother’s chagrin. She said that Debbie Reynolds was more suitable. Hadn’t she made “Tammy” a hit song? 

Even my five-year-old self knew the problem with Elizabeth Taylor was Eddie Fisher, the singer/actor who had left wife Debbie for the racy brunette. In spite of the Hollywood gossip, Mom reluctantly bought me the notebook for a quarter. Or maybe it was 15 cents, I’m not sure.

I thought of this episode as I perused the classic toys and kids’ art supplies at Town Hardware. They still make sketch pads and writing tablets though they don’t have movie stars on the cover.

Our State magazine has listed the Black Mountain general store as one of the 12 most charming general stores in Western North Carolina, number one being the Mast General Store’s mother ship in Valle Crusis, which was far more charming before it started selling t-shirts and caps in branch locations.

Maybe it’s the smell of ripening fruit or the worn places in front of the old-timey cash register or the snap of the screen door or the rattle of a glass-front door with a brass latch. General stores are my kind of place. It’s comforting to know that some lucky kids have such places to shop.

Photo credit: Town Hardware