Middlebrook General Store Thrives in a Big Box Age

May 17, 2016

Before urban sprawl and big box stores, folks in rural communities did their shopping at the local general store. Many of these stores have disappeared from the rural landscape, but one in the town of Middlebrook in Augusta County is not only surviving, it’s thriving.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler paid a visit and has this report.

It’s an unseasonably cold afternoon in April and eight or so volunteers have gathered together to give the little wood Middlebrook General Store a fresh coat of white paint, all donated by Sherwin Williams in Lexington.  It’ll take a long time for the paint to dry – it’s 42 degrees outside -- but the volunteers don’t seem to mind.

STANLEY BRIGHT:  We expected a warmer day.

Stanley Bright, retired, is board chairman of the Middlebrook General Store.  The store had been serving farmers in this corner of Augusta County in some form or fashion since 1901. This was the place where locals could come and stock up on everything from milk to nails to fabric to juicy gossip. It was the heartbeat of this tiny village.

But in recent years, the store, like a lot of things, couldn’t compete with box store culture. It finally shut down for good in 2009. Middlebrook – population just over 200 -- had lost its hub. Villagers felt it.

BRIGHT:  There was a lot of feeling in the community that it would be nice to have the store open again. It would be good for the community.

Stanley is among 125 investor members -- including a bunch of those who came out to paint -- who each invested anywhere from $25 on up to raise $125,000 to buy the building and reopen it as a store in 2011.

BRIGHT: Even though it’s no gold mine. It’s not like owning an oil well or anything close to that but I think it’s been good for the community. Most people enjoy it, are glad it’s here—as evidenced by the fact that we’ve had these work days like today and people have turned out to paint the store and stuff.

[Sounds of the lunchtime crowd]

Middlebrook General Store may no longer sell fabric or nails, but it sells staple grocery items including bread, beer, salad dressing, plus tee shirts, freshly made pizzas, Virginia-made products like potato chips and maple syrup. The front window displays curios such as a beige rotary dial phone—remember those? A barrel of complimentary peanuts is just inside the front door.

The store also houses a café, which bustles at lunchtime. One of the diners is Helen Jarvis.

HELEN JARVIS: This is my first time coming for a meal but I’ve lived in Middlebrook since 1947.

Her husband is here every morning for the ad hoc men’s meeting. What do they talk about at the men’s meeting?

JARVIS: I have no idea. Gossip. That’s what they do. They catch up on the gossip.

Some things never change.

Henley Gabeau is another investor member and secretary of the board.

HENLEY GABEAU:        Lately, I’ve started calling it the “Cheers” of Route 252. Because Ann Shultz and her family manage it and they so happy and [full of] smiles and positive. Ann likes to cook so the food is really good. It’s just a great atmosphere. It’s Cheers without the alcohol.

For listeners under a certain age, Cheers is a popular television show from the 80s about a tight knit tavern in Boston.

Store manager Ann Shultz was slammed with lunch orders in the tiny, no-frills kitchen. Diners, including Rockbridge County resident Becca Schad, had nice things to say about the menu.

BECCA SCHAD: The food is great. It’s all homemade.

Middlebrook General turns a small profit, aided by the efforts and contributions of so many community members. The store’s significance to the community will be celebrated during the three day Old Middlebrook Village Days beginning May 19. There will be a barn dance, 30 craft booths, a barbecue chicken supper, and a tractor show. Freddie Thacker and the Grassroots Band and The Goodson Band have been tapped to perform. Any profits to the local fire department.

STANLEY BRIGHT: There was a fella who was a longtime farmer in this area, very well respected. A lot of people liked him. He died a while ago. His widow sent us a very nice letter saying how much she had appreciated the fact that the store was open and when his health was declining this was a place where her husband could come. It sort of gave him something to do, you know. So when you get a letter like that, it makes the whole thing worthwhile.