THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, March 12, 1995 TAG: 9503100185 SECTION: CAROLINA COAST PAGE: 10 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Cover Story SOURCE: BY LANE DEGREGORY STAFF WRITER DATELINE: OCRACOKE LENGTH: Long : 194 lines
EACH MORNING, when the weather is rough, they gather inside the wide front room to trade tales.
Fishermen, fathers, friends since childhood, more than a dozen island natives hang out on the pine-planked floors of Ocracoke's general store, sipping free coffee that's always strong and steaming, waiting atop the electric hot plate.
Sometimes, the wooden-framed screen door slams heavily as tourists come by to browse through exotic cheeses and Polynesian sauces that line the whitewashed shelves.
Other customers choose ice cream, duck decoys or handmade pottery.
From commercial fishing supplies to fine German wines, you can get anything you want at Al Styron's General Store.
``My grandfather ran this store, then my uncle. I hope to turn it over to my daughter, Candy, so that she can keep up the place. It's always been in the family,'' said James Barrie Gaskill, an Ocracoke native who fishes commercially and manages Styron's store. ``It gives the local people a convenient spot to get their drinks and bread.''
Ocracoke is a 14-mile-long island in the southern region of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Year-round, its population is about 800. In summer months, thousands of visitors ride the free ferry across Hatteras Inlet every day to access the unique seaside village.
With no full-sized grocery stores, no fast food restaurants, not even a coin laundry or movie theater, Ocracoke's people depend on a community store, a variety store and Styron's store for almost all their needs.
In the elbow of a tree-lined side street, tucked between family fish houses and the squat brick lighthouse, Al Styron's General Store is one of Ocracoke Island's oldest establishments. A wide, white, covered porch wraps around the front. Political handbills, business cards and school meeting schedules are tacked to the windows and porch posts.
Gaskill's maternal grandfather, for whom the store is named, opened the 35-by-36-foot shop on Hog Island, near Cedar Island. In 1920, he tore the cypress walls down, loaded his boat with the lumber, and carted his business to Ocracoke. There, he rebuilt the almost square store.
``It used to be a regular grocery store,'' Gaskill said last week, sorting through trawl nets piled high in the back room. ``When I was a kid, we sold Phillips 66 gasoline, too. But my uncle pulled those pumps in the late '50s when the Exxon station opened. The island has changed a lot since then. And so has the store. But some things in here are still exactly the same.''
On a high, top shelf near the back of the store, burgundy leather-bound ledgers contain records of every transaction made in the store since 1925.
Store employees, usually the sons or nephews of the owners, met a supply boat from Atlantic, N.C., at the village docks each Wednesday afternoon. The boys loaded bread and sodas into 55-gallon drums, then carried their cargo to Styron's store in pickup trucks.
Customers called in their grocery lists - or, more often, dropped them off in the morning. Workers picked out the merchandise and wrapped it in brown paper. The teenage boys walked or rode their bikes around the village, dropping off dinner for their neighbors until the mid-1960s. Bills generally were settled later, when the customers could afford to square up their running accounts.
``We kept some of these receipts on brown paper bags, still do,'' Gaskill said, shaking a pencil-marked sack from the ledger's dry pages. ``Local people, we let charge stuff year-round. We write their names down here and the price of what they got - no credit cards needed. We let some commercial fishermen carry their accounts through without paying all winter. When the weather won't let you fish, we know you don't have money to buy groceries. We'll let you slide until you do.''
According to the 1925 receipts, a dozen eggs cost 25 cents at Styron's store and five pounds of potatoes sold for 10 cents. In 1940, another ledger says, the Ocracoke Island Coast Guard station purchased 100 pounds of potatoes for $1.85; 20 pounds of salt pork for $3; and 20 pounds of navy beans for 90 cents.
``Now, our navy beans are 89 cents a pound here,'' Gaskill said. ``At Food Lion, or somewhere on the mainland, you can probably get them for 69 cents. We have to charge more for our stuff because of shipping costs.''
The antique, gilt cash register that Al Styron installed still occupies the prestigious front counter space, although Gaskill and his daughter write most receipts using carbon paper. The former feed scale now holds storeroom keys.
Two 1950s-era meat coolers cradle Dutch cheeses and fancy deli meats. The original safe, a multi-drawered roll-top desk, and a 1940 adding machine are all displayed - and used - as they were. Seven thick, glass Lance candy jars, their red, metal lids on tight, tempt sweet-toothed customers with fire balls, Tootsie pops and licorice whips.
Wooden milk crates and apple boxes hold gourmet wines imported from Australia and France. Metal fish baskets are filled with fresh onions and red potatoes. A Carolina blue painted vegetable rack that once overflowed with locally grown produce now supports travel guides and island cookbooks instead.
We used to sell everything for the local folk. Now, there's so many tourists moved in here and visiting that we had to get some fancy foods, souvenirs and cheeses,'' Gaskill said. ``They used to go off the island to get this stuff. We can bring it in by truck. But we're trying to keep up a lot of the old feel for this place, too.''
Some of the original items in Styron's store couldn't be re-used, but are arranged as makeshift museum displays around the store.
Gaskill's glass marble collection fills three Mason jars. His 1950s decoy collection flocks across the front shelf. A 50-year-old galvanized steel grappling hook with which Coast Guardsmen dragged the ocean floor for bodies sits alongside a wall, beneath North Carolina crafts.
A rusty tobacco cutter that once sliced long slabs into plugs remains operable - but untouched - near a rack of Helly Hansen all-weather jackets.
Next to the Chinese roast duck mix, Jewish matzos and Thai sesame oil, 10 bars of 30-year-old Colgate Octagon soap remind shoppers of a simpler time.
``We got a crazy mixture here. There's probably no other place in the world where you can get chest waders and duck pate all at the same spot,'' said Candy Gaskill, James Barrie's 28-year-old daughter who runs the store with three other relatives and a family friend.
``We wanted to try something different in the past couple years and see how it's done nowadays. We get gourmet magazines and go through them, mostly just try things out and see what sells. The whole gourmet scene is really big for retail now. I didn't realize there was that much call for it on Ocracoke,'' Candy Gaskill said. ``But there is. One couple comes in from Pennsylvania every year just to buy this banana pepper sauce we stock. They said they can't find it anywhere else - even in the big cities.''
The front, main section of the store is the original part, Gaskill said. A cast-iron stove that heated the entire shop sat in the center. Now, the dusty pot-bellied antique leans against the restroom wall, a relic of warm companionship on cold winter nights.
Gaskill and his uncle expanded the floor area and put in central heating and cooling systems - almost doubling the store's size.
A long, low-ceilinged back room is separated by the shop's only interior door.
Today, that area houses life jackets, crab pots, gasoline cans and monofilament nets. It still contains cork life vests and cotton nets - for nostalgia's sake.
When Gaskill's grandfather ran the shop, a back area was reserved for livestock feed. Barrels of cornmeal, oats and other grains were kept on hand for the island's cows, chickens and goats. In Uncle Al Styron's days, the rear area was a pool room. A 1937 state license that hangs on the wall shows that to operate two pool tables, Styron had to pay a $15 annual fee. Three separate 1936 licenses say a beer license cost $25, a tobacco dealer's permit cost $5, and the proprietor had to pay $5 just to sell bottled drinks.
Although the general store is primarily a retail establishment, its owners also make and sell meals.
Three wooden tables and a dozen ladder-backed chairs offer customers a place to sit a spell to sip a soft drink or stay for one of Candy Gaskill's locally famous soup and sandwich lunches.
James Gaskill's wife, Ellen, bakes fresh brownies and chocolate chip cookies for the general store to sell.
``I come in at least once a month in the winter for commercial fishing supplies. This is the only place on the island with the stuff we need,'' said Perry Bayer, a commercial crabber who lives on Ocracoke and often hangs out in Styron's store on rainy mornings. ``James Barrie pretty well takes care of all of us. Candy makes a mean milkshake in the summertime. And if you can get the truth out of these watermen who sit around here shooting the bull, that's something.''
With all the unusual offerings, and considering the eclectic mix of merchandise, shoppers might think it difficult for the proprietors of Styron's store to pinpoint its best-selling items. But Candy and James Barrie Gaskill agreed instantly on what is most popular on Ocracoke:
``Beer and bread. Always has been that way,'' said James Barrie Gaskill, chuckling. ``Guess it always will.'' ILLUSTRATION: [Cover]
"CHEST WADERS TO DUCK PATE"
Historic Ocracoke store as it all
Staff photo by
DREW C. WILSON
Styron's manager James Barrie Gaskill, left, chats with Mike Heller
in the back room of the general store. Commercial fishing supplies
line the shelves, walls and floor in the room.
A variety of bottles from sodas sold over the decades frames a small
office at the rear of Styron's Manager James Gaskill's glass marble
collection is also displayed in the store.
Photo courtesy of
JAMES BARRIE GASKILL
Albert Styron, whose name graces the family's general store at
Ocracoke, not only ran the place, but pumped the gas himself in the
1950s. Styron opened the 35-by-36-foot shop on Hog Island, near
Cedar Island. In 1920, he tore the cypress walls down, loaded his
boat with the lumber, and carted his business to Ocracoke. There, he
rebuilt the almost square store.
Al Styron's General Store is one of the oldest establishments on
It is located on Point Road, near the lighthouse.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 10 a.m. to
5 p.m. Sundays.
For more information, call the store at (919) 928-6819.