His father built the store 73 years ago with wood and metal scavenged from a railroad trash pile. It was a company store, for railroad workers who lived in a shanty town on the wrong side of Alexandria's tracks.
The shacks are gone now, replaced by haughty new town houses and a red brick office complex. But Johnson's Store, which advertises itself on Powhatan Street with a Coca Cola sign and an American flag, remains. To customers who can find everything from fish bait to parakeet feed to hard shell crabs, Johnson's is a museum piece of a general store. But to some of the new neighbors, it is an ugly mess of corrugated metal and rusting paint.
"The place is an eyesore," says one resident who recently spent more than $100,000 to buy and renovate a building in the north Alexandria neighborhood that sits at the foot of a bridge carrying Route 1 over the railroad tracks. "That kind of place belongs in West Virginia."
Morris L. Johnson, the garrulous, 61-year-old owner of the store who is known to his loyal clientele as "Brother," does not entirely disagree. The place could certainly use a few coats of paint, says Johnson, and he is even now making plans for a more extensive remodeling. The problem, he complains, in his customers. They just won't listen to renovated reason.
They tell me don't touch a thing," he says, his hands held up in mock exasperation. "I've got all these customers from North Carolina and West Virginia who say it reminds them of home."
When Johnson was growing up, feeding wood to the store's two stoves and free sandwiches to the hobos who slept under a nearby railway bridge, there were as many cows grazing in the area as people living there. The grassy fields have gradually been covered in brick and mortar. Against that backdrop, Johnson's stands out like a banjo picker in a symphony.
"Esthetically, the place is hopeless," says a local real estate developer, who has contributed to the neighborhood's new, and expensive, veneer. "But what I object to more is the traffic problem the store causes. Delivery trucks double and triple park out front. They always block the fire hydrant, but the police never give any of them tickets."
Johnson says he has warned the delivery drivers to leave an opening for passing traffic. Fixing tickets is not as easy with the new breed of police, he concedes, as it was with the old timers. But Johnson, who claims as his friends most of Alexandria's political old guard, is grateful the city is still enough of a southern town that he can sidestep bothersome regulations and red tape.
"The city pretty much goes along with me," says Johnson, who has never run for office, but was once "elected" Honorary Mayor of Alexandria by the Northeast Citizen's Association. "I've got a lot of friends," he adds with a wink.
When the 10-unit office complex beside Johnson's Store was being planned, the developers, Batcheller and Son Real Estate, offered Johnson more land at below market prices if he would remodel his business to blend better into their idea of a highclass neighborhood.
"We set aside more land, a larger building and parking," said Carter Batcheller, who works with his father out of a renovated town house a few doors from the store. "We hoped Brother Johnson would agree to rebuild and become part of the project."
Brother Johnson says he rejected the deal for two reasons. He wasn't offered enought land and the price wasn't right. And he was afraid that a new store might cost him old customers.
"One lesson I learned 30 years ago is not to be too fancy," says Johnson, who likes to tell about the wealthy woman customer who stopped shopping at his store after he bought a new car. "She said if I was making enough money to but a brand new car, I didn't her business anymore."
Since then, says Johnson, he always leaves his new car at home and drives a 10-year-old model to work.
Meanwhile, he has announced his ready to surrender the store to a new facelift. When the State Highway Department tells him exactly wehere the new Rte. 1 bridge wil go, Johnson plans to cover the outside of his store in brick. It will look exactly like the Piggly Wiggly fast food store up the street.
"I know a lot of my old customers won't like it," says Johnson. "But then, a lot of the old timers have already faded away."