Mom and Pop businesses are a symbol of American entrepreneurship that is slowly disappearing. Mega companies move into small towns, and many locally-owned entities are forced out of business.
Many small companies, beginning with only one or two employees , developed into huge ones. Nike began with two $500 investments and is now one of the largest shoe companies in the world. Dell computers started when Michael Dell assembled computers in his dorm room. He began with $1,000.
But bigger is not always better - personal service of the few neighborhood stores that are still around is a tradition to be treasured.
Small country stores are often defined as ‘Mom and Pop’ stores. In Burke County, the community of Oak Hill had four such businesses near the main intersection during the mid- 20th century.
There was a store located where the Oak Hill Fire Department is now and was operated by the R.E. Winters family. The one next to that was originally run by Ralph and Pearl Cloer in the early 1940s. When their lease ended, they went down NC 181 and built the brick structure for their business.
The Cloers’ previous store was then opened as Oak Hill Grocery by Herman and Katherine Taylor. This ‘Mom and Pop’ enterprise continued into the early 1970s.
Another business between the Taylors’ and the Cloers’ stores was the Oak Hill Grill. The couple who ran it were actually called Mom and Pop. It did not have any indoor seating at first, only two windows to place orders. They soon added a few indoor booths. Oak Hill High School seniors were allowed to cross the road during lunch as their rite of passage. Other students would often hang out at the stores or grill before and after school. The grill had the best sweet tea I ever drank.
When Ralph and Pearl Cloer opened their new store, their customers followed them. The address was Rural Route No. 5, and the phone number was 2389 R4. Ralph cut fresh meats, and in the fashion of the old country stores, made sandwiches. He sliced a thick slab of bologna, (baloney) from a five-pound cloth-covered roll and slapped it between two slices of white bread. Cost: 10 cents. The customer’s gas was pumped for them and jovial conversation was the order of the day. Pearl added fabrics and bed linens in the back room, and her sheets and pillowcases were very affordable. A post in that room still has a hand printed note: “Fabric 49¢ yard.”
When Ralph and Pearl retired, their store was re-opened as Bowman’s Convenience. Howard Bowman added gun sales in the back portion of the building. After Bowman, it was operated by Longo for several years until my family bought it in 1982. It was once again Cloer’s. We had fresh meats for a couple of years, and then opened a sporting goods store in the back room. What began as Pro Athletics became CBS Sports and moved to a larger building.
We added movie rentals in the late 1980s and eventually had almost 6,000 VHS, DVD movies and games for rent. In 1999, my sons opened the Pizza Station in the back portion of the store, and I acquired it and am operating it now. We leased our store out in 2012.
In January of this year, it was re-opened as Bulldog Convenience, a name connected with the Oak Hill Bulldog mascot. It is operated by a local man, David, the Pop of the Mom and Pop style of doing business. I hope the community supports him as they did us.
Gone are Uncle Ralph and Aunt Pearl’s days with the loafer’s bench outside next to a spittoon for the tobacco-chewing, overall-wearing farmers, but the friendliness remains. I hope previous customers have pleasant memories and when they patronize the Bulldog store they feel a welcoming atmosphere. Like the words of the song from an old TV sitcom, “Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came...” local smiles and welcomes are the best.
When I run into folks they will often say, ‘I know you – you used to run Cloer’s,” and then I notice they are younger an d answer, “Yes, and I know you. You used to come in and always wanted candy.” Sweet, Sweet memories.
Debra Leigh Cloer is a lifelong member of the Oak Hill Community, a member of the Morganton Writer’s group, and a supporter of locally-owned businesses. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.