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Last downtown store is now just a memory

WTHO DJ Greg Harden was enjoying music of the past Saturday morning, when a caller took him perhaps deeper into the past.

Juanice Smith Gordy called to report that Avera Shopping Center was closing. She was sad, and so was Harden.

They both remarked on how sad it is to lose a store that has served a community for many years.

Gordy said the closing of her parents' store was a reminder of the need to support local businesses.

Now I had just been minding my own business Saturday, returning from a Relay for Life yard sale fundraiser, preparing to pour a half-dozen events out of my notebook and camera, when I heard Gordy and Harden discuss Avera. But I had to find Avera, and the store, and to experience that day.

Getting the principal folks in this story to talk was not difficult, not at all. No one had to tell their story; they were the story.

And so I watched as the Jefferson County town said goodbye to its last downtown store, a building that had sold meats and hardware and more for a century.

Longtime manager Jimmy Lee Stone welcomed me as though I had been shopping there all the 44 years he has worked there. Stone said he planned to open a smaller store just up the main thoroughfare on Monday. Customers said they looked forward to seeing him in the former office of the old cotton gin. Still, Saturday was a time for reflection and farewells.

"I never thought anybody would have bought water," Stone said on the final day at 9486 Broad St. Stone planned to resume selling bottled water, his signature steaks and a limited line of groceries at 9401 Broad St. "My business is gonna be called J&P," he said. The second initial stands for Phyricilla, his wife's name.

Stone said he was 9 years old when he started tending stock in the store, then owned by Gerold and Dot Poole. "About 42 years they had it," he said.

"Mom and Daddy bought the store in August of 1989," said Gordy. Her parents, B.C. and Joyce Smith, operated the store until December 2009.

"I hate to see it go," Gordy said. The high-ceiling, century-old wooden building is too expensive to maintain, especially in the summer. She said just running the freezer and coolers and very little other cooling can run the power bill to $1,200 a month.

She said food prices keep rising. "And by the time you add your markup, people just can't afford it," Gordy said. "It just gets too expensive."

Gordy said her mother ran the store by the rules of another day. If someone needed groceries and couldn't pay, the store just made out a ticket and put it in a box. "You didn't sign anything," she said. Many of those tickets still fill a box in the old store.

Double-edged razor blades and hair curler pins shared space on a rack Saturday. A few years' worth of dust covered some fishing caps, which carried outdated price tags. "Some things are just for looks," employee Loretta Herzog said. "It's been here so long that it's just considered part of the store."

"When I first started working here we had about seven stores and three service stations," Stone said. Now the town will have one small store.

Gordy said Avera residents need to look after their new store, and residents of neighboring towns need to take heed.

"Everybody needs to know that if they've got a business in their town, that they need to be supporting it," she said. "Shop with Jimmy Lee and try to keep something, because this is it, this is the last business in Avera."

I tried to call Greg Harden to thank him for guiding me down some different roads and through a different time. I missed him. I'll try again.

Web posted on Thursday, March 24, 2011

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