Cataract General Store Exterior

photo by: Daniel Dempster/Alamy

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2024

5 Historic General Stores Offer Old-School Shopping in an Online Age

As a kid, Todd Sheets stocked shelves at Beeker’s General Store, a Pemberville, Ohio, shop built in the 1870s and beloved by customers for its history and eclectic selection of products. Sheets continued working at the store as an adult and purchased it in 1994 from former owner Mildred Beeker, enamored with its wooden floors and tin ceiling. “I’ve always liked the building. It’s magical,” Sheets says.

The store draws both locals and visitors from around the state and beyond who purchase Amish-made jams and pickles, time-honored candies, handmade leather purses, cast-iron-skillet handle covers, and books by local authors.

“People come not only for the products but the whole experience. The history is part of the experience,” Sheets says.

A new generation of entrepreneurs is keeping a handful of general stores in operation, defying the odds in an era of big-box retailers and online shopping. They combine the practical and the idealistic, evoking nostalgia while carrying distinctive handmade gifts and essentials that vary according to local tastes. At Northern California’s San Gregorio General Store, tourists snatch up premade sandwiches, cheeses, and sliced meats to sustain them for a day at the beach, less than a mile away. The Cataract General Store in Spencer, Indiana, shown at top, carries camping supplies, auto tools, motor oil, and antifreeze to cater to outdoor enthusiasts headed to the waterfalls and state park a half mile down the road.

San Gregorio General Store Horizontal

photo by: KC Hatcher

The San Gregorio General Store in San Gregorio, California, caters to both locals and visitors.

Nagley’s Store in Talkeetna, Alaska, occupies a strategic location in a hamlet that swells with tourists in the summer but also draws locals who rely on the 103-year-old store for groceries all year. The next closest grocery store is at least 14 miles away, says co-owner Steph Spone. “Many locals have limited transportation, and if they live closer to Nagley’s, that is where they will do at least a portion of their everyday shopping for food and general supplies,” Spone says.

General stores came to prominence during the early 19th century, serving as a one-stop shop for villagers and town residents to supply items they couldn’t make or source themselves, says Leslie White Hagerty, former director of the General Store Museum in Westminster, South Carolina. Numbers declined after World War II with the rise of global markets that enabled big-box retailers to offer more inventory with lower prices, she adds.

The stores were also community hubs of their time, where locals often got their news. “One of Miss Beeker’s most famous sayings is, ‘They came for gossip and groceries, and in that order,’” Sheets says.

While general-store owners are no longer major sources of news, many serve their communities with classes and events. Beeker’s holds workshops in the maker space next door, featuring local artists who work with class participants. Afterward, the guests can peruse the artists’ wares and other store merchandise.

San Gregorio General Store Product Display

photo by: KC Hatcher

Inside the San Gregorio General Store shoppers will find an assortment of prepared foods, drinks, household items, and gifts.

San Gregorio General Store offers live music on weekends, including Friday evenings, which has drawn the after-work crowd. “Staying open a little later and offering hot food has really increased our business on Fridays,” co-owner KC Hatcher says. “We have a consistent local crowd, but we see people visiting from all over.” The store has expanded its grocery section to include more staples such as milk and eggs for the locals, along with housemade soups and stews to feed weekend guests. It also serves drinks in its fully stocked bar.

The retail industry’s fundamental principle—location, location, location—also applies to general stores. San Gregorio General Store’s prime spot a mile from Highway 1 and midway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California, has made it a convenient stop for road-trippers.

“It’s a beautiful drive from any direction,” Hatcher says of the store, which has been around since the 1880s. Her in-laws bought it in 1979, and Hatcher and her husband took over the operations in late 2020. During the pandemic, more in-state visitors discovered the store on the way to the area’s beaches and hiking paths. “It’s a pretty special place. When you walk in, it has a very nostalgic feel,” Hatcher says of the Mission Revival–style building with terra-cotta roof tiles, arched windows, and original mosiacs on the front facade.

Other stores operate more seasonally. “One of the biggest things that saved us is that we’re located next to a state park,” says Catherine Kuntz, co-owner of Cataract General Store, which closes for the winter. “The tourists are the majority of our business.” Kuntz purchased the 1860 business at auction with husband Scott 10 years ago.

Mast General Store Exterior

photo by: Mast General Store

The original location of Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, which opened in 1883, is still in operation.

While some stores attract business because they’re the only food market for miles, others, like Beeker’s, anchor downtown main streets. Mast General Store, a chain with 11 locations in four Southern states, follows the latter business model. Founded in 1883 in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, the original store was purchased by John and Faye Cooper in 1979. They gradually added new locations, most recently in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2020 and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2015.

The Coopers’ daughter, Lisa Cooper, who now runs the company, describes the expansion as “slow, organic growth.” Mast enters communities that want to revitalize their main streets and welcome more retail, and in most cases it purchases vacant buildings to stave off inevitable rent increases. The company’s small maintenance crew spends about two years refurbishing a purchased store before it opens.

Mast executives choose buildings that were once significant to the community, says Cooper. “History is part of the brand,” she says. “Each building we’ve gone into has historical significance to the town it’s in, and they are all so very different.” In Greenville, South Carolina, for instance, Mast debuted its store 21 years ago in what was once a hometown-based regional retailer, Meyers-Arnold Department Store.

Nagley’s Store Exterior

photo by: Jurgen Weginger/Alamy

Nagley’s Store in Talkeetna, Alaska, was founded in 1921.

Cooper also notes that the company started after her parents fell in love with the original Valle Crucis store. The Coopers and others in the community rallied around saving the building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The couple reopened it in 1980 after a nearly three-year closure.

The average Mast store occupies around 14,000 square feet on multiple floors, making its footprint larger than that of its single-store counterparts. Its products, which appeal to locals and tourists, include clothing, boots and sandals, camping gear, and a selection of handmade pocketknives. Each store stocks barrels of old-fashioned candies and classic toys, and a collection of locally made goods—such as Benne wafers and grits in South Carolina.

“I like to say we capture [customers] as little kids in the candy department. And we keep them as they grow up into the bigger departments,” Cooper says.

General-store operators hope their businesses remain intact for the next generation. “It’s become a legacy for us,” Hatcher says. “It’s something special we can take care of, feel good about investing in, and pass on to future generations. A lot of people love this place.”

But other owners wonder if their stores will live on for another generation. Whether they stay open in the long term remains to be seen. “It’s been a labor of love,” Kuntz says of Cataract General Store. “We’re worried about what comes after us. We’re proud of what we’ve done. When things are gone, they’re gone.”

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Julekha Dash is a Maryland-based lifestyle journalist published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Afar, Travel & Leisure, and others.

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