ago yesterday, Sue Isley walked out of the store and locked the big
old single-pane glass doors for the last time. She said she hated
change, but the time had come for change. The time had come to stop
running a country general store. So she retired herself before the
malls and the convenience stores retired her.
the wings of Belews Creek’s current events waits a possible buyer
for the A.W. Preston & Son Store, lock, stock and battered old
brick building. A deal may or may not be struck, but one way or
another, for the first time in more than a century, the store will
not change hands within the family. It will be sold outright.
did it all start? Envision thoughtfully scratched heads. Let’s
see, they say, it would be pretty soon after the Civil War, but …
well, you, see, no records survive.
failure doubtless irks the very soul of Talmage Preston.
always told me,” says Sue Isley, “’Never trust your mind.
You’ll always forget. Keep records.’ And he did. He was always
working at that high desk in back, on a stool, keeping his records.
Roberson, Sue Preston Isley’s great-grandfather forsook Belews
Creek for Indiana rather than fight in the Civil War. When the war
ended, he came home and started the I.A. Roberson Mercantile Co. on
the banks of what was then Belew Creek. His daughter became the
local postmaster – until the administration of President Gerald
Ford, the Belews Creek Post Office had always been in the store.
left the store to his son-in-law, A. W. Preston, Sue Isley’s
grandfather. When his son Talmage joined him in the 1920s, the
business became A.W. Preston & Son.
then, when Sue was a girl and Belews Creek had a grain mill and
children swam in a real running millrace, Preseton’s Store was far
more than a sleepy pack-a_Nabscan’-an’-fi’-gallons-a-reg’lar
enterprise. The store was the cornucopia from which flowed all the
necessities of life in Belews Creek, and use of the Sears and
Roebuck catalog was mainly confined to Belews Creek’s outhouses.
railroad had come through Belews Creek before 1900. The store stood
right beside the tracks. Things people needed came on the train, and
people bought almost everything they needed at the store. In fact,
because of the railroad, “the city” was for Belews Creek people
not Winston-Salem but Greensboro: The train went there.
the store were bolts of cloth, men’s and women’s and
children’s shoes, overalls and hats, hardware and tools of all
kinds, fertilizer and seed in bulk, plow points, planting machines
and all the groceries a family of 10 could want. In the fall, people
bought 100-pound sacks of flour and cornmeal, and coffee, coal,
sugar and kerosene, new shoes and winter coats. In spring, they
bought seed and fertilizer, but until September they bought on
credit. After the tobacco harvest, they paid their bill at the
store, and then started over.
Preston advertised only on Ramon’s “Little Doctor” calendars
and in semiannual typewritten letters to each of his customers,
thanking them for their past custom and informing them of current
prices and new stock. In the early 1920s, the store did very well.
T.R. Preston built a big brick house nearby and bought a Buick.
1930 and ’31, Belews Creek had a bad time. The Depression
generated more credit purchases, some of which remain on the books
today as accounts receivable. Once during that dismal period Talmage
Preston, ordinarily a mild-mannered, unadventurous man, drove his
Buick to Charlotte, confronted the president of a fertilizer company
that had threatened legal action if its bill wasn’t paid, and
dropped a bunch of keys on the man’s desk.
can’t pay you,” said Preston. “Here’s the keys to the
don’t know what I’d do with your store,” said the fertilizer
baron. “Keep your store. Pay me when you can.”
The store was Belews Creeks answer to
the Central Intelligence Agency and Southern Bell Telephone
combined, the place to talk politics, swap lightning and blizzard
anecdotes, gossip about your neighbors, read your mail. The Junior
Order, a very old fraternal organization, used to meet on the second
floor of the store. T.R. Preston stayed open late on Saturdays to
accommodate the meetings. He was a teetotaler and never sold beer,
but for 50 years the store had been a Shell oil dealer. For many
years, it took three men and a fourth driving the company truck to
deliver the coal and fertilizer, stock the shelves, man the post
office and tend to customers. The store was an anchor in the lives
of children, a crucial gear in the community mechanism. Messages
were delivered via the store. “The sawmill hands were paid off at
the store. If you went on a trip, you boarded the train at the
the creation of Belews Lake in the early 1970s left the store on a
dead-end remnant of road. Then the Post Office moved to a spiffy new
building out on the rerouted NC 65, where Postmaster Conrad Parham
now spends his days in air-conditioned but solitary splendor.
the last few years, the store has had some paint, some nails, a few
rakes and shovels, a row of work shoes, beekeeping supplies (Sue’s
husband, Elwood, is a beekeeper), motor oil, begetable seed, light
groceries, and at lunchtime you could make yourself a cheese and
bologna sandwich at the back counter. But gradually, the
non-perishable stock gathered more dust than customers.
store was all Sue Isley knew, growing up, and when she married she
brought her husband into it, and in the mid-1940s they took over
together and for a while it was all their children knew.
don’t like to sound like I’m sprounting wings,” says Sue,
“but I thought of the store as a service. When people found what
they wanted and were satisfied, I felt good. But lately – well, I
didn’t feel good about it when people couldn’t find what they
of her four children, or any of their cousins, wants to be
feel lost,” she says. “Absolutely lost. I hate change. I don’t
know what I’ll do now. But I’ll tell you one thing: For 40
years, I’ve never had my Saturdays free. Whatever I do now, I’m
going to keep my Saturdays for me.”
1980 Winston-Salem Journal