From the Free Press, August 1, 2004 and used with permission.
Just down the road from North Lenoir High School, another kind of class is held.
You probably can't use much of what you learn. But some spare change will buy you a snack, or you could walk away with a couple of apples for free. A prominent "conversation piece" comes in the form of a lone collard leaf, cured as if it were tobacco. And it's the perfect place for George Rouse to showcase his 30-inch peas.
Welcome to Bryan's Store, in the heart of Lenoir County's Institute community.
Today, it's little more than a hangout with frills. But the store stands as one of the few reminders of a small, but bustling, turn-of-the-century commercial center for those who lived and worked on farms in the northern part of the county.
"Back in the 1930s, I came over here with my daddy on a mule buggy … to get flour, coffee, sugar - the staple goods," Rouse said, leaning back in his chair.
"Back then, you raised all the other, didn't ya," added Thomas "Pee Wee" Williams, an Erwin native who eventually settled along Institute Road. "Chickens in the yard. Hogs in the pen."
The Lenoir Male and Female Seminary, also known as the Lenoir Collegiate Institute, or simply the Institute, had long closed its doors by the time Rouse began trekking to Bryan's Store with his father. (After all, "town was too far away," Pee Wee said.) But a handful of its buildings still stand, including the academy's primary building, which eventually became Institute United Methodist Church.
And of course, the name stuck.
In the last 100 years, Institute voluntarily has taken the gradual downgrade to quiet country village - on the outside. Inside Bryan's Store is another story. (Lots of them, actually.)
"This is a community job," said Edward Dawson, of La Grange. "Whoever comes out here first, opens it up."
Several people have keys. The store "opens" at about 3 p.m., and closes at dinnertime. It reopens at about 8 p.m., and closes at bedtime. Inside, you can get crackers, candy, something cold to drink or a pack of cigarettes.
"That's the cash register over there," Dawson said, motioning to a small round table. On it were three stacks of coins, all less than an inch high: quarters, dimes, nickels. Who stocks up on supplies? Whoever goes to Sam's Club first. (A Lance man comes by with the nabs, though.)
Frequenters, many of whom are veterans, use the honor system. But "if any strangers come up, we'll get up and wait on them," Dawson said.
Bryan's Store is housed in a plain, white one-room building at the intersection of Bryan-Hardy Road and Brothers Road. A soda machine is out front.
Dusty, time-worn shelves inside are stocked with some canned goods, like pork and beans or Vienna Sausages. In the corner, dried tobacco leaves hang. Against the wall, a stack of folding chairs rest. The occasional yellowed-photograph or hand-carved truism - "Sit long, talk much" - decorate the walls.
In the back, a plaque still in a clear plastic wrapper hangs showing Wheat Swamp Christian Church's gratitude to "the Bryan's Store Gang" for their participation in a fish fry.
A window air conditioning unit keeps them cool. A pot-bellied stove keeps them warm.
You'll find an old adding machine, and an old set of scales. A political poster of state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, is taped to an old barrel. (He stops by sometimes.)
"You can find most anything in here," Rouse said.
Despite the décor, the stories are new.
"I got my first tomato on my vine. It's about this big," Pee Wee said, making a circle with his thumb and index finger. "It's as red as a rose."
Like much of the county, agriculture has remained a conversational mainstay in Institute.
Take 83-year-old Jake Herring, for instance. In 1899, his grandfather bought 64 acres of farmland just west of the community for $640.
Bryan's Store "has been here as long as I have," he said. Herring remembers another one of Institute's three shops back then, a small grocery store that's no longer standing. Ben Wilson ran it.
Herring as a boy saw 96-pound bags of flour at the Wilson store, stacked from floor to ceiling. That business preformed remarkably during the Depression years, he said.
"Ninety-six pounds didn't last too long then - a whole family eating three meals a day," he said. "Now, my wife buys a 2-pound bag and it goes bad. Of course, you didn't have nabs and Pepsi-Cola back then. Everything you ate came off that table."
A small cardboard box sits on a table in Bryan's Store where the gang brings apples, peaches, tomatoes, okra - anything "extra" to come out of a garden. Whoever wants it goes home with it.
But the produce is just a fringe benefit. Get a dozen or so of the guys together, all talking at once, and you'll get the real taste of Bryan's Store. And keep in mind that enough discourse can uncover shared distant relatives.
"One of them took a dose of Castor Oil and it works on all of them, because they're all kin," Herring said, laughing.
"Everybody jokes, and tells one story right after another," he said. "They can tell you where the unknown soldier is in here."
Jason Spencer can be reached at (252) 527-3191, Ext. 237, or Jason_Spencer@link.freedom.com.
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