An Era Fades Away by the Side of the Road

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Myrtle Faunce's Thursday, much like the rest of her days, included two hours spent on a stool at Buzzy's Country Store, on the southern tip of St. Mary's County. At half-past noon, the door creaked open, and Faunce stepped onto the oak boards, and past the butter churn hanging from the ceiling, on her brisk walk to the beer refrigerator.

"Buzzy, I came to get you. It's such a pretty day, let's go out and play," Faunce said in her gravelly twang as she lit a smoke. "Come over here and give me a big ol' hug."

At 82 -- "and still gettin' it on!" -- Myrtle Faunce is not above having a few Milwaukee's Best Lights at the lunch hour.

At 82 -- and "tired of it" -- proprietor Clarence "Buzzy" Ridgell knows that customers like Faunce are pretty much all he can hope for at this point. Although he had 740 hats for sale, plus dusty cans of Vienna sausages, the days when shoppers would make Buzzy's their first choice for groceries are dead.

There used to be at least 26 country stores in St. Mary's, but fewer than 10 continue to operate, said Teresa Wilson, historic preservation planner in the Southern Maryland county. The rest have been demolished, abandoned or converted into restaurants, antique shops or other businesses.

Not too far up the road from Buzzy's, the final few chain stores in a sprawling strip mall -- actually two strip malls connected by a ligature of parking lots -- opened within the past three months. From BJ's Wholesale Club in the north to Food Lion in the south, it is a whole mile of convenience brought to rural St. Mary's by those familiar names of national commerce: Lowe's, Ross, Target, Old Navy, Dress Barn, Petco, Best Buy, Staples and Kmart.

Inside none of the chain stores, however, can you drink a beer and smoke a cigarette, complain about how the county's going to seed, discuss the finer points of Dick Cheney's bird hunting mishap, play Keno, greet your Amish friends and eat a pickled pig's foot.

So that is the niche left to Buzzy's and other country stores that are hanging on in Southern Maryland and other counties on the far edge of the Washington region.

The sense of community inside Buzzy's has been a constant since 1953, when Ridgell returned from the Air Force and took over the store -- which opened after the Civil War -- from his father-in-law. But much else has changed. Early on, he said, "it was something like a miniature Wal-Mart. It had pretty much everything the locals wanted."

The store had dry goods, rope, plow points, a line of meats from Baltimore (butchered by Ridgell himself), a gas pump and three slot machines where the glass display case now stands. Back then, his store was one option in a series of hangouts and drinking holes that the locals would traverse on foot. Now, with many of the other spots closed, Ridgell concedes, "we're kind of at a low ebb." Some shelves lie empty except for a couple of bags of chips and a few knocked-over foam coolers.

But the character of Buzzy's place remains. The store is situated amid open fields, on a bend in a two-lane road. The nearest post office is a roadside trailer. Buzzy and a few tenants live out back.

On warm evenings, the parking lot fills with pickup trucks, and customers sit on the front porch until the mosquitoes get too bad. A big night is "Thirsty Thursday"; beers go for 90 cents. Inside, on little slips of paper, Ridgell keeps his regulars' tabs, although he is less and less confident that they will be paid. On a calendar -- from 1989 -- next to the gallon bottle of Captain Morgan's rum, Ridgell keeps the dates of his regulars' birthdays so he knows who drinks for free -- after buying one round for the house.

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