STAFFORD: Corner store mixes alcohol, tobacco, firearms and friendship

Tom Stafford

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Tom Stafford

I’d first thought of skipping a story about the Buck Creek Carryout.

The store at the corner of Villa Road and Route 4 sells guns among its hunting and fishing gear.

And that puts it at the center of a political traffic jam, where communications are usually carried out by horn blasts and hand gestures.

But Evan Erickson of the local Ducks Unlimited chapter called saying Sharon Eldridge, who had just sold the store to new owner, deserved thanks for the years she’d helped local conservation groups preserve habitat – and for being the person she’s always been.

The store turned out to be a true corner store.

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Sharon Eldridge, left, the former owner of Buck Creek Carryout, and Taylor Pelfrey, the new owner./ Contributed

Sharon Eldridge, left, the former owner of Buck Creek Carryout, and Taylor Pelfrey, the new owner./ Contributed

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Sharon Eldridge, left, the former owner of Buck Creek Carryout, and Taylor Pelfrey, the new owner./ Contributed

And I knew I liked Eldridge soon as I asked her age and she told me she’s is proud to have made it to 73. That made her 40 in 1989 when she first walked in the carryout’s door.

That’s 33 years back.

At the time, she was a manager at Yellow Springs Instrument Co. working 60 to 80 hours week, a circumstance that led her to a crucial management decision: “If I’m going to kill myself for a business, I’m going to kill myself for me.”

When her son-in-law suggested the carryout, it seemed a better fit than a bar, which her husband had suggested. So, Eldridge took a look.

There was fishing tackle, odds- and-ends and “more alcohol than anything,” said. But she also saw a potential she believed in.

“You just know in your heart that this is right and it’s going to work. If you don’t have that (feeling), don’t do it, because it won’t (work).”

A year later, the placed burned.

“We had been to the Ducks Unlimited banquet the night before. There was a sign hanging on the front of the building and a ballast went out,” she recalled.

When the electrical circuits clicked off a time or two, the store workers flipped them back on and a fire ensued. And when the volunteer firefighters hit the rising wall of flame at the front of the store with a blast of water, it found dry wood to burn in in the back.

“We had to get the kids out of the house” behind the store,” Eldridge recalled.

“It was so devastating … and heartbreaking.”

But a solid insurance policy and a helpful builder had the place open again on April 1, 1990. Eldridge then paid $250 to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for a license to sell cigarettes along with alcohol, milk and pop.

The agency’s name also gave her an idea.

“I had alcohol and tobacco,” she said. Being so near the public hunting at the Reservoir, “I might as well get firearms.”

She remembers the process of getting a license as “quite an adventure.”

And although she did her due diligence in studying the business, “I learned more about guns from my customers and word-of-mouth.”

That story underscores what Eldridge soon identified as the crucial element at work in any corner store’s success: Its relationship with its customers. And she always stayed on top of that.

“I don’t care how busy you are, if someone bothers to walk in the door, you take the time to say hello. We’re all in the same position trying to make a living. We have different levels of responsibility, but we’re all doing the same thing.”

Along the way, she added lottery tickets to the alcohol, tobacco and firearms -- as every convenience store must -- and kept looking for ways to improve things marginally. And as she did -- always with her customers in mind – friendship merged with business.

Before she could imagine it, she was selling the guns and fishing and hunting licenses first to the children of her original customers, then their grandchildren.

The community they formed can’t seem to get enough of the photo contests during deer season and turkey season. And the giveaways of fishing and hunting gear for the kids are popular enough that the adult winner of the spring mushroom photo contest gave his winnings back to the store so the kids could get a little more.

For regulars, “It’s like Cheers,” said 30-year customer Marty DeWine. “Everybody knows your name.”

In a way lost on many, Eldridge has come to appreciates what her customers do to preserve species and the environment.

“If it wasn’t for the hunters taking care of the land or buying land or leasing farms for the animals, this world would be in bad shape” she said.

She also learned that just as the pheasants were devastated by habitat destruction in the Blizzard of 1978, wild turkeys survive near the margin of habitat changes and their presence depends on the health of their habitat.

“If the animals don’t survive, humans surely won’t,” Eldridge said. “Because we keep the ecosystems to support their life, we know we’re doing the right job.”

Her own life changed greatly four years, when her husband passed away. Among the consequences was the transformation of the family dog, Dinky, into a sales consultant.

“I didn’t know what to do with him, because he was never left alone (before),” she said.

When she started bringing him to work” customers loved him,” she said. “He’d sit in on a lot of gun deals (which regulators may or may not know) and entertain a lot of children.”

Since Eldridge sold the place to Taylor Pelfrey on April 11, Dinky has been missed, Pelfrey said.

She arrived with the number quality a corner store needs: “I had a lot of customer service experience.”

And, as Eldridge points out, the 27-year-old emerged from the local habitat.

After growing up in Northridge, “She moved into the neighborhood about four years ago” and on her first visit said ‘What a neat little store. Someday I’m going to own this.’”

“It’s so relaxing and welcoming,” Pelfrey said. “Everyone’s greeting you and you’re making friends and everyone’s just great.”

She said “the bookkeeping and the behind-the-scenes stuff” were “a bit of a struggle” at first – “a few tears were shed.”

But now, “I feel like I’m doing great.”

No Pelfrey pet is yet on the payroll, but Pelfrey’s husband, Dereck, is involved in the operation and their 3-year-old son, Walker “thinks he owns the place,” Eldridge said.

Pelfey also benefits from a business decision Eldridge made when the fire destroyed the store in the first year of her ownership.

In the old place, “the counter was a big horseshoe right in the middle,” Eldridge said. “And it was really, really awkward, especially because of the drive-through window on the store’s north side.

So, she moved the register near the front door, put the hunting and fishing gear on the south wall, and concentrated the convenience store items in the center.

“That’s one thing I absolutely love,” Pelfrey said. “The people who come in who don’t care about guns,” she said, don’t have to be exposed to them.

But because all the customer mix together in at the counters and in the other aisles, she said, “we can talk about it and be understanding that we don’t have the same opinions about everything and it’s alright.”

On that subject, Eldridge has been having a gut feeling of the sort she had when she bought the store.

“You know, there’s something that’s happening. It’s like worldwide, we’re out of synch. But I notice the good people going out of their way to be better people.” In the course of a normal day, “they’re stepping up and letting you know” through smiles and hellos that they are people of good will.

For some, at least, it’s the season of good will hunting.

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