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.
It was on his 18th birthday that Steve O'Neil -- known in the store as Stubbs -- first came into the warm glow of Buzzy's. Beyond the birthday tradition, there are others he has learned to abide by: "When wife or girlfriend calls, you buy round for house" a sign behind the bar reads. O'Neil, 42, over mini-bottles of Black Velvet whiskey, recalled fondly those free-drinking days, back before St. Mary's "got more law than we need."
"Back then, Buzzy was the only law around here."
Ridgell spends seven days a week behind the counter, from "early to late," he said, or until he pulls the chain on the light and tears another page from a hanging calendar. He knows he relies on the steady demand of one basic product.
"If they did away with 10-ounce Budweisers, I'd be out of business," Ridgell said.
He wouldn't want his children to follow in his footsteps, not these days.
"I don't want to stick them with something like this," he said.
Planners say rapid development threatens the remaining country stores.
In Calvert County, a historic preservation survey lists several country stores that have been shuttered over the years: Bafford's Store, Lusby Store and Post Office, Smith's Store, Donald and Kline General Store and the H.E. Hutchins Store, among others.
"As long as there's not a whole lot of development pressure and land values don't go sky high, an individual can own [a country store] and make a good living," said Cathy Hardy, a planner in neighboring Charles County. But as Charles rapidly becomes more suburban, she said, "property values are so high, corporations are some of the only folks that can afford the land."
Those who frequent country stores, and even their owners, say they shop at the larger chains. At Stone's Store in Budds Creek, in St. Mary's, a can of tomato soup costs 90 cents and a half-gallon of milk, $3; at the Food Lion in Leonardtown, the soup costs 49 cents and the milk is $2.39. Still, there may be hope for country stores.
"It's a fairly resilient type of business, but those that succeed will have to change," said John Savich, director of the St. Mary's Department of Economic and Community Development. "It's not going to be selection, and it's not going to be price. It's going to be the friendliness or something that's a little different or a little better."
For the regulars at Stone's Store, in operation since 1932, that little something is found in Patsy Stone and her family. Hanging out at the store feels like being involved in one long group hug. When Stone's children and grandchildren stop by after work or school, they greet the regulars with embraces before they begin chatting about their day.
"This is really unique what you have here," said Mike Yohn, 62, a retired U.S. Capitol Police officer who helps out at the nearby Budds Creek race track and has been frequenting Stone's for more than 20 years. "It's like we're all family in here. It's something you don't see a lot of anymore."
The store hosted Yohn's surprise 60th birthday party, which he calls "one of my happiest moments." Patsy Stone, 67, who lives next door, will bring regulars spaghetti or homemade soup. She has hosted Easter egg hunts and karaoke nights, and for those who come Sunday morning to drink, she lists the names on a sign for "Stone's Store Church Service."
It's also a place to swap stories. Like the time regular Vance Deniston, 48, was scolded for leaving motorcycle skid marks in the parking lot. Or when they found a baby squirrel in the yard and tried to nurse it to health. Or when a customer passed out drunk in the store.
"He was sitting there with his head down. We went over there and painted his fingernails," said Angela Smith, a store employee.
"Then I put a red bow off of a Christmas package on his head," Stone said.
"We got him good," Smith said.
But Stone has decided to sell the store. If she were a younger woman, she said, she might try to expand and modernize. Of her four children, one was interested in taking over, but he died of cancer. Her daughter, Emily Wheatley, 39, a registered nurse, said she is happy in her job and not up to the challenge of running an old-time store.
"It's a dying breed," Wheatley said. "I think it's time for a change."
"Maybe it will be a good thing, maybe I'll have to go straight home," Yohn said and then shook his head. "I'm going to miss this place. We all are."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.