Cooper's Country Store

by Aïda Rogers

Cooper's Country Store is the kind of place you'd find in a short story by Flannery O'Connor. Somehow it's the center of the universe in the middle of nowhere. Walk in the door and look to the left. There's Russell Harter, drinking a Coke and eating a Baby Ruth. "I'm gonna get married tomorrow if the weather don't get hot and it don't turn cold and it don't rain,: he says to whoever wants to listen. Right now, his audience is George Cooper, sitting behind the cash register, and Florenia Burgess, sitting in the rocking chair. Florenia's daddy used to sit there, and now, when she comes in to shop or just talk, she makes sure she sits in the rocking chair first. "This is our home store, you know," she says. "These people here know when you're broke."

In business since 1937, Cooper's Country Store is a rambling reminder of what used to be. Country hams hang from the ceiling the old-fashioned way. Buckets of lard and barbecued pigs feet can be bought here; so can hard-to-find rice steamers and Red Rock Cola. Homey and weathered, it quietly refuses to succumb to modern America. Owners Adalyn and George Cooper don't want a white-bright convenience store; neither does anyone else.

"We have people come in here all the time, and they look around and say, 'It looks like we're back in the '50s; please don't change anything,' "George says. Adalyn laughs. "Where else can you go in a modern store and see a collection of books and magazines and fish bait and Vaseline on the same counter as the cash register?"

Cooper's Country Store is two miles from Salters, where U.S. 521 crosses S.C. 377. Adalyn's father Theron Burrows built it when the WPA put in the road from Georgetown to Manning, and the spot became known as Burrows Crossroads. People who know the store say it's on "the back way to the beach," and it's long been a popular stop for gas, a cold drink and bathroom run. But for those who live nearby, it's much more than that.

"I'm telling you, they give courtesy service here, and it means a lot when you can go and talk to someone," Florenia Burgess says. The other option is to go seven miles to Kingstree, and they're not as likely to talk to you there, she opines. "They don't have time for it, unless you got a million dollars."

The people who patronize Cooper's don't have a million dollars. Some don't even have indoor plumbing. George and Adalyn point to a row of seven-quart combinets, used as night-time toilets. They sell better than the rice steamers, Adalyn says, adding that rural proverty keeps a country storekeeper sympathetic. "You can't help but have an understanding for someone else," she says, recalling how her father used to tell his customers - most of them poor farmers - about their legal rights.

The Burrows family lived above the store; back then it was called Burrows Grocery. Adalyn and her two sisters grew up working there: counting out cookies for customers, dipping ice cream, pumping gas and operating a cash register that could register only up to $2.99. After World War II, their uncle moved in and worked there, too, and still does, part-time. It was a tight fit, but the three Burrows girls knew even then that their childhood was different from most.

"We had round-the-clock activity," Adalyn says. "When we wanted to get out of washing dishes or making up our beds, we would escape down the back stairs under the pretense that Daddy needed us to help in the store."

When a customer came in after too much to drink, the girls were shooed upstairs. If that happens now, George shoos the customer out the door.

One of the best things about Cooper's Country Store is the porch upstairs. You can get a good look at the lonely two-lane highways that cross here and a feel for what it was like growing up above a rural meeting place. Stand up there with Adalyn now, and she'll tell you how she and her sisters used to throw dirt from their mother's potted petunias on the customers below. She chips some of the peeling paint off a post with her finger and then looks down at the parking area. A thin woman in a flowery dress is walking purposefully to the door.

"There's somebody form off," she says, watching the woman disappear inside. "Somebody form off" is someone who doesn't live within 10 to 15 miles. "Sombody from off" is anyone who is unfamiliar.

But the joy of Cooper's Country Store is that it is so familiar.

The pace is curious at Cooper's, where business seems slow and fast at the same time. Upstairs on the porch in the late afternoon, Adalyn can watch all the pickups rumble into the lot. It's noisy out here; people are talking and laughing and watching other people. Adalyn watches them, then looks out to the blinking light where the highways intersect.

"We've seen lots of terrific accidents," she says. "We hear them. There's a sound of a wreck that's unmistakable, and we always go running." She and her family learned basic first aid and they've all used it. Sometimes it wasn't enough.

One person died in the store, but it was a peaceful death. A deaf-mute neighbor named Edgar died one day in the rocking chair. Later his family said there was no better place for him to die than at his home away from home.

"My father's motto was, 'We serve the needs of the neighborhood,'" Adalyn says. Obviously, some of those needs can't be bought with money.

Adalyn's father died in 1973, prompting her husband to buy the store and change the name. "My parents were poor, basically uneducated people who worked hard and tried to live right," Adalyn says. "This store was their life and it was ours, too."

Adalyn, who has taught high school math, been an education administrator, carried the mail and now runs another small business, found herself doing what she had done as a child. But not everything is the same as it was back then. Years ago, they'd sell 10 cases of sardines a week. Now they sell two. Rice, grits and flour used to come in 100-pound bags; now the largest size is about 25. People don't want lard as much as they did once, nor are they as interested in the rack of clothes or the shelf of shoes. Orange Crush doesn't come in the brown bottle anymore.

The proprietors have tried to adjust to changes without sacrificing character or neighborly good will. "One of the reasons we're still in business is we know our local customers personally," Adalyn says. "We care about them and they care about us." The Coopers have published a booklet of recipes, cooking hints and storage tips about their famous country hams. They won't tell you where or how they cure them, only that they're great no matter how you fix them. Adalyn began promoting them partly to keep the store open. "We keep thinking, 'What have we got to do to stay in business?' Because let's face it, small businesses like this are folding every day."

You can pick your own ham from the screened section in the back, and George will slice it for you while you wait. Many people order them for Christmas gifts and parties; tourists from all over buy them when they wander in. Hams from Cooper's Country Store have been shipped to Hawaii, Alaska and other parts of the country.

Thick slices of baloney - with the red skin still on or wrapped in cloth - are for sale in the meat case, along with slabs of Wisconsin cheese, liver pudding, sausage, buttsmeat and cold cuts. Smoked herring is available; so is fresh fish from Georgetown. Customers can fix their own sandwiches behind the counter; the Coopers provide the bread and mayonnaise. On weekends, Williamsburg County barbecue is made and sold here. If you drop by, it might be kind of fun to take a look at the store from the crossroads. It looks just right there; artists and photographers have captured it from that angle. If you go inside, you can make yourself a ham or baloney sandwich and talk to George. He'll give you a tour, or you can take your own self-guided one. Point all you want. It's not rude here.

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