The country store revisited

Published 12:49 am Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Charles Qualls

Color me surprised, but the column I get the most mention of has to be one from about a year ago. I love it when people recognize me in a store or restaurant and introduce themselves. Some acknowledge themselves as readers here, and that makes me happy. The single article most seem to mention is the one on lessons learned while I was growing up in my Dad’s country store.

From the time I was about six, until I finished seminary, my parents owned a small country store. At great sacrifice of time with our family, my Dad ran that business himself. Open six days a week, for years he worked 14 hours a day there. Starting at about the age of eight, I worked for him until I moved away to Louisville, Kentucky, after college.

I often reflect on my experience there, and surely I came away with more lessons than a dozen columns would hold. Here are a few more from my time in the store that have shaped me.

A community needs a gathering place. In our little community of a few hundred people, our store was the only regular business that was open. People stopped by for more than a tank of gas or a gallon of milk. If not a store, then a restaurant, school or church can be that gathering spot. I wish more people valued the gathered community these days. I learned there that a sense of place is as important as what goes on in the place.

Details matter. If I miscounted someone’s change, either they got shorted or we did. They might get mad. If I put more gas into their tank than they asked for, we might be on the hook for it. Details matter. I was taught to take a second longer and try to get things right. Even small things. Or as my friend, former Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson likes to say, “How you do the little things is how you’ll do everything.”

A steady, reliable schedule isn’t the worst thing. We had folks you could set your watch by. They came in every day. You came to count on them, and looked forward to them being there. We are convinced that one late-night regular even prevented a robbery once. I wish more church members today understood that you can attend two (or even three) Sundays in a row. Steady isn’t always boring.

Most people are good and honorable. If you are a daily news watcher, as I am, sometimes you could be tempted to feel differently. We found out that, in reality, most people were honest. They wanted the goods and services they needed, and would pay a fair price. The vast majority wouldn’t take advantage of us even if they could have. Isn’t that still the best thing we probably have to offer each other?

Having said what I just said, I also learned that there will be people you just can’t trust no matter how badly you want to. We had the occasional difficult or dishonest customer. Worse, my Dad caught one part-time employee stealing from him. A retired man who ostensibly worked only to have something to do. Yet, a customer noticed him stealing from us and told my father. He had to fire the man, and decades later it still hurt my Dad to talk about it. Same thing is true in all walks of life, including the church. Still, I default to trust until someone shows me that I can’t.

Finally, I suppose I learned that there’s more to life than “cool.” Let me explain. We had as customers some of the elite high school players, a growing local wealthy population and even the occasional pro athlete. Beautiful women and handsome men. New Atlanta was moving out our way. These people looked so cool, so fashionable. I was even star-struck occasionally. Looking back though, it was the end of the hippie era, the whole disco age and then right on through the preppie thing. Is any of that still “cool”? Beauty fades, athleticism wanes, fashions change. We can be overfed on entertainment. The people I truly remember were the kind, decent and honest ones.

If there’s a common thread that runs through all of this, you’ve probably already caught on to it. On balance, nearly all of this speaks to the notion that substance matters. The things that last are the times when we are the very best of ourselves with each other. Who we are matters. What we are matters.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.