I could drive this road with my eyes closed, or almost -- U.S. 460 as it winds through the mountains of far southwest Virginia from Richlands to Grundy, my home town. I go over the heart-stopping Shortt Gap. I pass the huge Island Creek tipple, long shut down; innumerable "yard sales" held in no yard, but right along the roadside; a storefront with a big sign that says "We Buy Ginseng"; several houses turned into the kind of freelance churches where you get to scream out fervently.
Like a vision of Hell itself, the coke ovens appear as I cross the bridge over the Dismal River, brick chimney after chimney belching flames into the sky. We used to drive up there and park when I was a teenager -- it was the most exciting thing to do on a date (and the only thing, except for the revivals and the movie that changed once a week). Today there is lots of traffic as I get closer to Grundy, and the large hollers spill out into the main road: Big Prater, Little Prater, Watkins Branch, Hoot Owl. An old high school friend in a neighboring truck rolls down his window and says, "Hi, Lee, when did you get in?" and we talk until we can move on again.
I am always struck by that "in." Driving into Grundy is literally like coming into a bowl, producing that familiar sense of enclosure that used to comfort me and drive me crazy all at once when I was a teenager. These rugged and almost perpendicular mountains nestle Grundy "like a playpretty cotched in the hand of God," as an old woman once described it to me. The mountains are so steep that the sun never hit our yard directly until about 11 a.m., so steep that a cow once fell off a cliff straight into my Aunt Bess and Uncle Clyde's kitchen. This is true.
Founded at the confluence of the Levisa River and Slate Creek, Grundy became the county seat of Buchanan County in 1858, enduring cycles of fire and flood, boom and bust ever since as lumber and coal businesses came and went. Perhaps its isolation and its constant struggles made its citizens so close to each other, so caring and generous -- the "best people in the world," my daddy always said, and this is true, too. I was lucky to grow up here, to hear the stories I heard in my father's dime store (who was pregnant, who was getting married, who had got saved, who was mean to her children or made the best red velvet cake) and in my granddaddy's office in the gray stone courthouse across the street, where he was county treasurer (who was in debt or out of a job or had set his house on fire just to collect the insurance money). I lived on these stories.
But today I've come to say goodbye. Grundy is poised to make history as it relocates to "higher ground" -- just as in the old gospel song. I park in front of the courthouse and stand on the sidewalk watching men board up the windows of the dime store -- this is the last time I will ever see it.
Many of my favorite memories of Grundy take place here, where I grew up. As a little girl, my job was "taking care of the dolls." Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dime store, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, and Baby Betsy Black.
Upstairs in my father's office, I got to type on a typewriter and observe the whole floor of the dime store through the one-way glass window. I reveled in my own power -- nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting but fights and embraces as well. Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.
I always went down to check on the goldfish in their basement tank. Every spring I looked forward to the arrival of the pastel-colored Easter chickens. But my favorites were the little round turtles with roses painted on their shells. I used to wear these turtles to school on my sweaters, where they clung like brooches. I bought jellied orange slices and nonpareils, those flat chocolate disks covered with little white balls of sugar, from Mildred who presided over the popcorn machine and the candy counter at the front of the store. My friends were surprised to find that I never got anything free; despite my protests, I had to save my allowance and pay just like everybody else.
By fall, the Ben Franklin store will be gone, demolished along with three dozen other Main Street stores and a score of homes as part of the $177 million Grundy Flood Control and Redevelopment Project, a historic collaboration among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia State Department of Transportation and the Town of Grundy itself, population 1,100. They'll move the railroad and rebuild U.S. 460 on top of a 14-foot levee running where these buildings now stand.
"New Grundy" will rise on the moonscape I'm looking at right now across the deceptively docile Levisa River: 13 astonishingly flat acres where a mountain stood until very recently, when they blasted away 2.3 million cubic yards of it and filled in Wellmore Hollow. A 300-foot-high wall of rock rises straight up behind. I get out my camera and take a picture. New bridges will connect the "new town" with the higher Walnut Street and historic courthouse area.
"Doesn't it make you sad?" friends ask. Well, yes and no.
Old Grundy was a ghost town anyway, because of its continued flooding -- nine major floods since 1929. In 1957, I remember a huge catfish flopping down the dime store stairs into the water-filled toy section. The flood of 1977 devastated 90 percent of the downtown businesses and caused $94 million in damage countywide.
I remember how Daddy never slept when it rained. He was always out back with his flashlight, "watching the river."
He closed his dime store in 1992 at age 83, due to lack of business. The building has been used as a teen center since. Unfailingly civic, my father always loved Grundy, and I know he would have supported any plan to save it.
But . . . Wal-Mart?
Grundy may be one of the few places in this country that has actually invited Wal-Mart into its downtown area, rather than organizing against it. The current moonscape's new "retail center" will be anchored by a unique Wal-Mart Supercenter sitting on the third floor of a 500-space parking building. Shoppers will take their carts up and down on a giant escalator.
"We had to look at it for the betterment of all the people," says Town Manager Chuck Crabtree. "We had to think, how do you bring the people in? We want this. We want to reenergize the town and bring the people back. We want to give them a revitalized town to come to, a place to stop and shop. It's not Wal-Mart that kills your town, it's the location of Wal-Mart. So we've brought it downtown. May 2007 is the date that the developer has to get open and going. It's going to be 18 businesses and three restaurants, which will create 400-plus new jobs. Our tax base will skyrocket," Crabtree says.
It's a bold solution, but is it a town? Or do we have to redefine our concept of "town" these days in order to have one?
I don't like Wal-Mart myself, on general principles: its low pay and stingy employee benefits, anti-labor policies and relentless dominance of the market. Yet on a practical level, Buchanan County's unemployment rate is a soaring 13 percent, and with so many stores closed, people have been driving 35 miles to buy a shower curtain.
But what about the businesses that used to fill these boarded-up stores?
As far as I can learn on this trip, none of them will be making the move over to the new site. Some don't want to compete with Wal-Mart. For others, the whole process is simply taking too long. They feel that 2007 is unrealistic, given the amount of construction yet to be done, including the giant ring wall for flood control. Rent over at the new site will be expensive, too.
So where have these stores gone?
Some merchants have simply closed their doors forever. Others have moved into a metal shell building upriver, known as Grundy Mall. It houses the Virginia Mountaineer newspaper, the Street Law Firm, Elaine's Boutique, the local division of Southwest Virginia Community College and others. The Hallmark Shop has gone over to Walnut Street. Both Terry's Tobacco and B&L Maytag have moved north to the Deel area, while Main Street Floral has relocated south of town.
"There's not another town in the nation that has undergone this much change in one year," points out senior high school English teacher Debbie Raines. "It is a totally unique situation. I mean, you're still here, but your town is gone . . . and when you go to the grocery store now, you see all these strangers."
For not only is the town itself being displaced, but an influx of new people have moved in along with the Appalachian School of Law, which opened its doors 10 years ago. Today it enrolls about 350 full-time students and employs 55 full-time staff. And that's not all -- the brand-new University of Appalachia's School of Pharmacy just started this year with 60 students, and other degree programs are planned. Students are involved in community service projects all over town, from teaching kids soccer to weatherproofing houses. Newcomers are scrambling to find any place at all to live; apartments are going up everywhere.
And I have to admit, I enjoyed the latte I bought earlier at the new coffee shop, Perks, which has opened up in an old house across Slate Creek from these campuses. I took a picture of it, to send to my cousin in Denver.
But, Raines says, "Psychologically, it's hard to undergo this much change. So many different ideas are being brought into this community. Our whole small-town value system is changing. It's threatening to older, more conservative people who live here. It makes it easier to leave here now."
The population has been declining for years anyway, because of the failing coal business. Buchanan County holds 28,000 people now. There were 35,000 when I was growing up here. Three thousand people lived in Grundy during the coal boom days of the early 1970s.
Raines says, "You look around and you think, this is not your home anymore."
I snap some more pictures, remembering one cold, dark Sunday afternoon, several weeks before Easter. Daddy has taken me down to the dime store with him to "help make the Easter baskets," which didn't come pre-made and packaged in those days. Many of the women who work in the store are there, too, and lots of little stuffed rabbits, and lots of candy Easter eggs. The women form into an informal assembly line, laughing and gossiping among themselves. They're wearing slacks and tennis shoes. They're drinking coffee. It's almost a party atmosphere. As a "helper," I don't last long. I stuff myself with marshmallow chickens and then crawl into a big box of cellophane straw where I promptly fall asleep while the straw shifts and settles around me, eventually covering me entirely, so nobody can find me when it's time to go.
"Lee!" I hear my daddy calling. "Lee!" The overhead fluorescent lights in the dime store glow down pink through the cellophane straw. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. "Lee!" they call. I know I have to answer soon, but I hold this moment as long as I can, safe and secure in this bright pink world, listening to my father call my name.
Watching him close the dime store after 47 years in business was one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed; in a way, it was fitting that he died on the last day of his going-out-of-business sale.
The merchandise was all gone, and somebody had just come to haul off the last of the fixtures. Daddy fell at home that same night, breaking some ribs; by the time I got to Grundy, he was at the hospital, hemorrhaging internally. All I could do was kiss him goodbye. My father never wanted to retire or leave Grundy, and I can't imagine what he would have done with his days when his beloved dime store was gone.
Now, his kind of business may be gone forever.
I take a few more pictures of all the boarded-up stores down Main Street, and then I'm gone, too. Lee Smith is the author of 10 novels, including "The Last Girls," and several collections of short stories. She lives in North Carolina.
Over the years, Grundy has endured natural and economic disasters, including the 1977 flood that devastated 90 percent of downtown businesses.
Work continues on the 13-acre site along the Levisa River where the relocated town is to rise. Left, the author with her father, Ernest Smith, in August 1992, during the closing sale at the dime store he ran for 47 years.