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There's nothing quite like going back home. If, like me, you're a child of the rural South, you'll know that feeling, see and smell and hear and feel that feeling. The smell of tilled earth or freshly cut hay, the crackle of a gravel road beneath hard rubber, that old whiff of red oak and varnish in the church house, low clouds of wood-stove smoke on winter mornings, jar flies on sultry summer days, lightning bugs and a Chuckwill's-widow in a dusky hollow. You can even taste it: well-water from a faucet, Momma's cornbread and pinto beans, cappuccino and a slice of Arrezzio's Chicago-style with black olives and banana peppers from the country store. Takes you back, doesn't it? Nothing reminds me of dear ol' Aunt Nellie quite like pizza, espresso, and frothing milk—except for maybe a Harley-Davidson do-rag, lemongrass soap, and a fifteen-minute bake in a tanning bed, all of which you can get at the country store, too. You know, back there next to the hoe handles and saw blades and pig shorts—the kind for feeding, not wearing.
A couple of generations ago, a traveler in the rural South encountered a general mercantile every five miles or so. Most were simple establishments, combining the functions of filling stations, groceries, feed stores, hardware shops, and community centers under one roof. They were family-owned and operated, with the owners often occupying living quarters in back, upstairs, or in a house next door. Sometimes the country store was also home to the community post office, all the more reason for people to gather on the front porch or huddle around the potbellied stove inside. This country store of yesteryear no longer exists. Even in the most remote nooks and crannies of the South—Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Delta—the nostalgia seeker will come up short in the quest for mercantiles reminiscent of Lum and Abner's old Jot-em-Down Store, with its hand-cranked telephone, its cracker barrels and nail kegs, its bologna and produce hanging from the rafters, its fifty-pound sacks of flour and twenty-pound bags of sugar, its Bull of the Woods tobacco and Red Top snuff, its hardwood floors and creaking screen door and clanging wooden cash register. Yet, the essence of the country store, its immutable country storeness, has survived, even as the symbols by which it was once identified have faded into the past.
In the face of a succession of challenges—parcel post and mail-order houses, automobiles and the good roads movement, dime stores and supermarkets and Walmart—the country store survives, albeit in scarcer quantities and with an evolution over time that has kept it relevant to its rural clientele. The survivors—and there are more of them than you might imagine—are models of adaptation. Country merchants no longer buy much of anything from their customers, no cream or eggs, apples, or hickory handles. They no longer furnish sharecroppers and small landowners in exchange for 10 percent per annum interest rates and liens on crops either. Instead, you will find in the Ozarks dozens of stores that serve their local customers in many of the same ways that their predecessors served rural communities [End Page 44] generations ago, by providing feed and fertilizer, gasoline and farm diesel, tools and local gossip, groceries and tobacco products, overalls and work boots, benches and a warm stove. The country store has evolved to meet the changing needs of a rural clientele more likely to drive thirty miles to work in service jobs in the county seat than to spend all day plowing the back forty, gathering eggs, and milking cows.
They also continue to provide a glimpse into life in the modern-day rural...