Seminary Road is the first leg of the scenic route from Silver Spring to Kensington. Like all good scenic routes it's shady, winding and has its share of stories that make people happy. Last year regulars on the road no doubt smiled when the old Fowler's Market became the Forest Glen Country Store.
For four years the old grey, box-shaped store attached to an old grey house had been boarded up. Now it's red and houses and old timey country store, a silversmith and an antique shop. Chalk up one for preservation.
But when I first visited the new Country Store, I hated it. The William Fowler who owned, operated and lived behind Fowler's Market was my grandfather. For about 40 years he ran a real country store. To me the new store was Whole Earth gone amuck, too trendy, too cute. It tore down too many of my memories.
Fowler's Market was a real country store. No matter that it was in the middle of a booming suburban area. It had big wooden bins littered with produce, shelves of cans climbing the wall, crowned with toilet paper retrievable only with a long pole with a mechanical grabber, and an ice cream freezer with four hinged white tops that afforded several challenging ways to search for popsickles and ice cream bars.
Below the meat and cheese case was a freezer with barely enough light for the Nehi soda pops to make their many colored promises. Behind that was the huge meat cutting block, my grandfather's stage. Seeing him go into the big, dark, sawdust-strewn meat freezer, bring out a side of beef, chop off just the right amount, and then pack and push it through a meat grinder! All the grade school hubbub about caterpillars turning into butterflies was never half as impressive as my seeing my grandfather turn the remains of some steer into hamburger.
My grandfather lived behind the store and on Sunday nights the family would gather and do what's property done behind a country store. We grabbed guitars and sometimes banjos and sang songs like "You wore a tulip, a big yellow tulip . . ." In school I only sang when the terrible gaze of the teachers made me, but at my grandfather's, well, when I went away to college lugged my guitar up to the store and sang "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You" to my grandfather.
Six years later he was dying. He lay in his living room behind the store moaning terribly until pain passed and he fell into a fitful sleep. Death is as much a part of a country store as sacks of potatoes.
Anyway, all this to say that my grandfather's was a country store. When I saw him laid out in the funeral parlor I didn't cry because anyone who knew him could see it wasn't him. When they lowered the coffin into the ground I didn't cry. When I came back to the store and he wasn't there, I cried.
None of his heirs wanted to run the store. It wasn't profitable. So the store went up for sale.
I'm a preservationist. Back in angry college days I foresaw exactly what "they" were going to do: Rip down all the woods and houses of my past and leave me with asphalt, aluminum and glass.
Periodically I drove by the store and it seemed on the verge of self-destructing, boarded up and broken into. I got a kind of grim pleasure out of anticipating my righteous anger when the site of so much life became a parking lot.
But the store didn't fall. In the Try It column one Sunday last year, Washington Post writer Phyllis Richman touted a Country Store just off Seminary Road that had crafts and whole wheat flour. The address was 6 Post Office Rd. My grandfather's address.
I drove out to see it. I hated it. My grandfather ran a country store. What was this cluttered replica of the trendy version of countriness doing in its place? Honey, carob, crafts, whole wheat this and that, and no meat, please.
The whole house was Whole Earthed over.The living room where I sang to him, where he died, was chock-a-block with homemade pin cushions, pot holders and further figments of a young seamstress's imagination: Folklore that real folk like my grandfather never knew about.
I left and had a terrible wish. I wished it was all a parking lot.
But I had forgotten the basic rule of enjoying a country store, even a so-called country store. Going into a country store and not talking to the owner ranks eighth on the Deadly Sin list.
This spring I went back and did penance. Lori Hall sat behind the counter, owner and operator just like my grandfather. I asked her how it came about.
She used to work in office and didn't like it. So she and friend tried to buy the Store in 1972 but somebody bought it just before they made their bid. Fowler's Market turned into nothing but a little speculation. As it decayed, its value rose. But Lori Hall kept trying to buy it. Finally the owner sold.
Lori Hall and her friend began working on the store. They didn't read a "How to Set Up a Country Store" article in a crafts magazine. If Hall was a butcher like my grandfather her store would probably carry meat. But her interest is crafts so she tries to sell them. She became interested in organic and natural foods about the same time other people did. She stocks it. people won't cross the road for milk but they'll come from miles around for whole wheat spaghetti.
While we chatted, the mailman dropped in just like mailmen used to do when my grandfather ran the store. This mailman bought a box of cat food. Everyday he feeds the strays on his route. The store started looking better to me than a parking lot.
She remembers country stores in North Carolina, where she grew up, and recognizes that her store is not the country store of my grandfather's day.
She's trying to create a tradition. Of course, it's hard keeping up with my grandfather.
"People who grew up around here," she told me, "and used to come to Mr. Fowler's store when they were kids all tell me how nice he was. Whenever they didn't have money for a soda pop or something, Mr Fowler would let them have it anyway."
She can't be so generous.
"I'm trying to get an income. I'm divorced and have two kids. I had hoped to live here too, but zoning doesn't allow that here now. Hopefully, by renting out some of the other rooms as shops we'll make out all right. I think we've turned the corner."
I walked around the store again. The profitable business - the soda pop and snacks - were displayed a little more conveniently than in my grandfather's day but not as boringly as at a 7-11. For old times sake I should have searched for a grape soda, but I got a bottle of Saratoga Vichy Water instead, something my grandfather never stocked.
And since I like Lori Hall (how can you hate someone who says, "I like being here because your grandfather was so well liked. It's nice trying to carry on that tradition"), I found the teas, herbs and whole wheat this and thats deserving of a place in the sun, or grandson, if you will.
Back in the house, the living room was empty. Seeing the room empty didn't make my memories feel any better, and having somebody rent the space would help Lori Hall carry on. Say, why doesn't somebody set up an old second-hand record shop in that living room and specialize in old songs no big star today would dare sing, songs like "You wore a tulip, a big yellow tulip . . ."