Written by Darren Dahl | Photos by Ellen Gwin & Courtesy of Mast General Store
When a 31-year-old John Cooper first laid eyes on the Mast General Store back in 1976, he had a vision for his family’s future that involved going back into the past. “I fell in love with the store as soon as I stepped inside,” says Cooper, who had traveled from his home in Florida with a friend to scout out potential real estate. “They literally had to carry me out.”
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]alking into a Mast General Store feels like you’ve stepped back through time. It might be the creak of the wooden floor as you walk across it, the scent of something piney in the air, or even just the fact that you might see iron frying pans on display next to woolen outerwear, rosebud salve, and barrels filled with rock candy. You just don’t see stores like this anymore. Big-box retail this is not.
And that’s exactly the kind of vision that engulfed John Cooper when he came upon the original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina—a bucolic little valley town tucked into the Blue Ridge mountains named for its three creeks that form a cross. It’s the kind of place that you might blow through without realizing it since its “downtown” is made up of just a few stout buildings that seem to date back to Antebellum. They don’t even have a stoplight there.
But the place was magnetic enough to draw Cooper’s thoughts back to the valley even after he returned to St. Petersburg, Florida, with his wife, Faye, and their two children, John and Lisa, ages 13 and 11 respectively. Eventually, the Coopers learned the building was for sale, which led to some soul searching. “I wasn’t really looking for a new lifestyle,” says Cooper. “I was managing a sales force for an insurance company at the time and had been interviewing to take on a new position at a different company. But the more I thought about the store, the more it looked like an opportunity to give us a different life and for me to be my own boss. I had always liked history and I had once worked for Montgomery Ward for a while, so I had some retail experience. I also sold ads for a newspaper for three years. My wife ran a small bookstore for our church so she had some familiarity with accounting. We thought we had enough business experience to make it work.”
The Coopers then researched the history of the store, which was noted in the National Register of Historical Places as a prime example of a country general store. They also took a trip to Maine to visit famed outdoor retailer L.L. Bean to see what kind of merchandise they may want to sell. It took a few more years, but in 1979, they made the decision to buy the store. Final price: $45,000 (which would be about $152,615.14 today), as is, plus some dusty inventory which included a few pairs of overalls. “We didn’t go up there with a big bag of money,” says Cooper. “We had to be frugal with every dollar we spent.” The Coopers sold their Florida home and most of their belongings, packed their two children up in a rental truck, and made the long winding journey up into the mountains before officially opening the store in June 1980.
“It was never just about making money,” says Cooper, who had a friend keep renewing his insurance license for him for a few years until he knew the store had really made it. “It was about saving an old general store that was like a living museum.”
You could say that Cooper and his family have fulfilled that mission and then some.
Building Up the Business
When you first meet him, Cooper, now 68, seems like he always has a smile on his face. Clean-shaven and gray on top, his ruddy face has a welcoming warmth all of its own. He’s also exceptionally good with names. When you walk with him through the original Mast store, which was opened by Henry Taylor in 1883 and later bought by W.W. Mast, it’s impressive to see him greet everyone from staff to customers by first name, some of whom have been shopping at the store for 33 years.
Cooper can point out the trap door in the floor behind the knife display. Underneath is a dark pit that used to serve as a chicken coop. Since chickens were used as currency to barter, shop-keeps of the past used to drop them down into the pen to keep them from being stolen. Cooper will also show you how the original floors slope at crazy angles and where they’re patched with old license plates nailed into the wood. Look up and you’ll see rows and rows of hooks that used to hold merchandise or cured hams. Over there is the ancient, yet operational, post office the Coopers petitioned the government to re-open inside the store. Make sure to heed the signs warning tourists not to open the mailboxes; that would be a federal offense.
When you head up the staircase—watch your head, the ceiling is low—Cooper can show you where his family lived after they moved into the building: living and dining room on the second floor; bedrooms on the third. Today, instead of a couch or TV, there are Amish-style wooden rocking chairs for sale in front of an old coffin, a remnant from the store’s earlier days when it’s slogan was: “Cradles to Caskets—if you can’t buy it here, you don’t need it.”
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)