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Far from town, but closer to home

Country stores sprinkled throughout Central Oregon provide people in remote communities a place to stock up on groceries and supplies

by: RON HALVORSON/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Leta Pettit and Richard Redwine of Richie's Place, posing behind the restaurant's counter.

The country life suits you fine. There are friendly neighbors — close but not too close — quiet, back-country roads, and enough of a spread to grow a big garden, raise a few beef, and let the kids work off some energy.
   Right now, though, it’s late Sunday afternoon, lunches will need to be packed for tomorrow’s school, and . . . there’s no bread. Do you drive a half-hour to the supermarket in Prineville — and spend a fortune’s worth of gas in the process — or do you take advantage of the resources at hand?
   You wisely choose the latter, and after a short trip to the Post Store — just around the corner in the lazy town of Post, 25 miles from Prineville — you’re smugly on your way home, bread procured.
   The Post Store is one of a handful of mom-and-pop country stores scattered across rural Central Oregon, and like most, is an integral part of the community. However, due to its relative isolation, there are challenges for the owners, not the least of which is how to keep the shelves filled.
   “Nobody delivers out here except for one beer company,” said store manager Stephanie Barclay, “so everything is collected by us.”
   That means that someone has to make regular trips to Prineville, or beyond, to pick up case goods and other necessities.
   For some, the greatest challenge is change.
   Kurt Brittner owns Kurt’s Country Store in Paulina, 55 miles southeast of Prineville, and likes to refer to his store as “a basic version of a 7-Eleven.”
   “Once upon a time there were several families that this was the only place they got their groceries,” he said. “But now, they’ve all passed away, and everybody else goes to town.”
   Karen Osborne, who owns the Wheeler County Trading Post in Mitchell, 47 miles from Prineville, had a similar take. She said winters used to be harder and people didn’t want to travel as much. Now it’s no big deal to go to Costco or Walmart.
   “I don’t blame ‘em,” she said. “They get a lot of stuff way cheaper than they’re going to buy it here. They time their trips to their doctor appointments, dental appointments, or whatever. I understand.”
   A few groceries, a place to meet, and friendship
   Although the function of the country store in the fabric of modern society has changed, they still have their place.
   F and F Grocery, owned by Frank and Faye Young, is located on Davis Loop Road, nine miles south of Prineville. Their 600 square-foot oasis has a bit of everything.
   “We meet everybody’s needs,” said Young. “We have meat, milk, pastries — we’re beginning to bring produce in, not a lot but a little bit — pop, beer, candy, eggs. With the price of gas they (customers) spend a tremendous amount of money in here for groceries.”
   According to Young, though, groceries only account for a third of his sales. The rest is divided equally between beer and cigarettes.
   Convenience is what draws local resident Gary Brown.
   “Probably daily,” he replied when asked how often he stops at the store. “I usually buy cigarettes, beer. Sometimes I come in here and buy potatoes and stuff. It saves me from driving clear to Prineville. It’s actually a pretty good deal for the whole community up here. It’s pretty handy.”
   Down the road a piece is Richie’s Place, owned by Richard Redwine and Leta Pettit. On Juniper Canyon Road, 12 miles south of Prineville and on the way to the ever-popular Prineville Reservoir, they also sell fuel.
   “Right now with gasoline being so expensive, they’ll (customers) make lesser trips down to town and buy it from me,” said Redwine. “Gasoline is the highest volume I have, and then beer.”
   Country stores are notorious as places to gather, gossip, and grouse. According to Ron and Mindy Sloper — owners of the Powell Butte Country Store, 11 miles west of Prineville along busy Highway 126 — their store is a favored place for opinionated customers to vent. They also have a regular coffee crowd in the mornings.
   The same can be said of the Wheeler County Trading Post. Osborn said she has an area set up with tables and chairs for people to sit, have coffee, and visit. During the winter she’ll have a jig saw puzzle going on the table.
   “We try to make it kind of homey,” she said. “We have the wood stove and people come in and gather around the wood stove. Just like the old country store. Somebody will show up, and then pretty quick somebody will come in to get somethin’, and see somebody over there sittin’, and pretty soon they’re over there too.”
   Some stores have reinvented themselves as a place to stop for something other than groceries, while still offering the basics. The Post Store’s tavern has been enlarged and turned into a small eatery, giving customers an even better excuse to gather. The long-time presence of the post office doesn’t hurt, either.
   “It’s a meeting place for some people, like the fire association meeting we’re having today,” said Barclay above the din of a dozen people in the background. “A lot of community come in, have lunch, and get their coffee in the morning. People do business lunches here now, all sorts of things. A lot of construction guys, road workers. They have a place to stop and get some food.”
   With the opening of its restaurant, Richie’s Place has become a serious venue for locals, as well — a desire of Pettit’s from the beginning. “Enter as strangers and leave as friends,” serves as the cafe’s motto.
   “It’s turned out, without even any effort on our part,” Pettit said, “they all come in, and my gosh, ‘We’ve lived next door to them for six years (she related a customer saying about their neighbors) and I had never met ‘em until we came in here.’ I’m just in awe over that. It’s turning out the way I wanted it to turn out.”
   Going the extra mile — in both directions
   Travelers and tourists may feel like they’ve gone the extra mile to even get to some of these stores, but it’s the locals who are the dependable, day-in, day-out, customers.
   “Local is the core,” said Post’s Barclay, “and that’s kind of what we want to make sure we keep. But the tourists going through are important to us as well.”
   Redwine said that while 85 percent of his business is from out-of-towners during the summer months, the reverse is true the rest of the year, and it’s the locals who have made the business a success.
   “You have to keep basics for the locals, even down to what beer they like,” he said. “They support us in the winter and that’s the toughest time.”
   Powell Butte’s Sloper agreed, saying it’s the faithful locals that have kept them going, especially in the winter. Some, he said, come to the store two or even three times a day.
   Being a loyal, local customer has its advantages. Barclay said that if she doesn’t have an item someone needs, she’ll make a special effort to get it from Prineville or elsewhere. Redwine — who lives above his store — is equally accommodating in that he’ll even open up the store for people who need gas or groceries after hours. At F and F Grocery, Young takes it a step farther. He said that as the need arises — if a customer’s car has broken down, for example — he’ll make a personal delivery of needed groceries.
   The old-time country stores were known for giving their customers credit — keeping a tab. While that’s pretty much passé, Mitchell’s Osborn admitted to tweaking the rules — occasionally.
   “Once in a while somebody’ll come in,” she said, “and it will be right before the first of the month, and they just need a couple things, and they have children, and so OK, it’s milk, and eggs, and cereal, or whatever, and I let them charge just for a couple days.”
   Young said he and his wife are similarly inclined. If a customer runs out of money before the first of the month, they’ll help out as they can. Sometimes, though, all they can do is listen.
   “A lot of people come in with problems,” he said, “and they tell us about them, and we listen, and sometimes we offer a little advice, try to make ‘em feel better before they go out the door.”
   It goes both ways. As much as the locals are served by their neighborhood country store, the store owners and employees are equally indebted to their customers.
   It goes beyond a livelihood.
   “The people are what make it fun for us,” said Pettit. “We both like meeting new people, and visiting. The neighbors, the community, the support has just been phenomenal.”
   Osborn said her store was broken into last Labor Day and was literally “trashed.” The community — her customers and friends — came to her rescue.
   “We had to turn people away, we had so many people wanting to help clean it all up,” she said, with a catch in her voice as she recalled the event. “They really rallied around us. They were very supportive. They had a fundraiser to help us with our (insurance) deductible. It’s just a fantastic community. We’re like a big family.”
   Young confessed that F and F Grocery is more than just a business for him and his wife.
   “We feel it’s kind of like a mission field up here,” he said. “We try to bless everybody that comes in. We love the people up here. Happiness doesn’t come unless you’re helping someone.”