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After 36 years in business, a small town grocery store that has proudly offered cold drinks and hot gossip to hundreds of loyal customers says goodbye . . .
Five Point Grocery owner Kelly Street was right in the middle of selling cigarettes to a customer when she received her official 90-day notice to vacate the premises from the Tennessee Department of Transportation last week.
The document was a tangible reminder that it won’t be long now until her beloved store becomes a pile of rubble making way for a new traffic roundabout at the busy intersection of State Route 81, State Route 353 and Depot Street. The store will officially close its doors Sunday, March 31.
With construction on the roundabout set to begin this summer, that means big changes — and a lot more free time — are ahead for Street.
But the fact that she soon won’t have a store to go to nearly every day, something Street has done for nearly 20 years, doesn’t seem to bother her.
“I’m good,” she grinned. “I’m settled with it and I’ll be fine. I’ll just do something else.”
She hasn’t decided what that “something else” will be just yet, but for right now, Street says, “I’ll just hang out and think about it. It’s playtime.”
Having worked full time at the family-owned store since 1995, the business has been a big part of her life, she said. “But the best thing about it, I got to work with my dad.”
Her father, the late Charlie Willis, had one Jonesborough business under his belt – The Chicken Shack, located across from Jonesborough Middle School – before he “acquired” Five Point Grocery in 1977.
When Willis got the business is certain, Street said, but how he obtained it remains a little blurry.
“The story goes that my dad won this store from Ron Lewis in a poker game that went on upstairs,” Street said. “I’ve never been completely sure, but that is what I’ve always heard.
“There are a lot of memories here. Boy, if these walls could talk.”
Street, who grew up in Johnson City, was only 12 years old when she first set foot in her dad’s new business, and she vividly remembers that moment.
“I thought, ‘What a mess. What kind of place is this?’” Street said.
“I can remember this little old man sitting over there,” she said, gesturing toward the front of the store. “He was wearing overalls and he didn’t have any teeth. People were just hanging out, playing pinball. It was all just kind of scary to me.”
Street paused and looked around, as if seeing it all again. “But you know, it’s turned out to be a pretty good place,” she said.
It was the place where she met her husband of 24 years, “He came in to get some beer,” Street said. “We got to talking and then we started going out. He’s loved me ever since.”
Street became the sole owner of the store in 2009, following her dad’s death.
She has kept it much the way he did, she said, and he wasn’t one to make many changes.
“My dad never did do much with the building,” Street said. “He just patched things up.”
The original wood paneling and pegboards line the walls behind shelves filled with tobacco products and other sundries. The linoleum is worn down to the subfloor in places, showing exactly where clerks toiled and customers lingered. Vintage signs and standees are now stacked back in the beer room for collectors and sentimentalists to peruse or purchase.
Surrounded by all those memories, Street might be expected to be a little downtrodden about the impending demolition of the building. But she was in a good mood last week, chatting with the steady flow of folks who came in to buy everything from beer to bread.
She punctuated every conversation with her signature laugh and called almost every customer by name.
Most of all, Street admits, she will miss her customers.
The store’s slogan, “Hot Gossip, Cold Drinks,” pretty much sums up a day at the store.
“From one day to the next, you never know what you’ll hear or who will come in,” Street said.
There is one customer in particular Street said she will never forget.
“One day the Coke guy, Kyle, was here and he was taking my order. Before he got there, this little old man had come in and he was just standing there in front of the window, looking around,” Street recalled. “I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to him. But then, all of a sudden, I looked over and his pants had just fell down and he didn’t have on any underwear.
“I yelled at him, ‘Pull your pants up!’ But he just stood there. I guess it just didn’t bother him.”
Other unusual visitors to the store include the four-legged variety. A raccoon that had taken up residence in the storage area had to be evicted and soon, Street said, TDOT will have to relocate a groundhog that has made his home under the store for about five years.
“He’s lived good here,” Street said. “He’s a big, old, fat groundhog.”
Street will also miss longtime employees Gladys Williford, who has been at Five Points since 1994, and Kathy Miller, who came to work at the store a year later.
It’s been a good run, Street said, and although her relationship with the town’s leadership has been strained at times, she said she wants to make sure the people in the community know how much she appreciates them.
“This town, the people who live here, have been good to me,” she said. “They’ve supported me, they’ve done business with me. Heck, they’ve raised me.”
So, what’s next for Street?
“Aw, you just never know,” Street cackled. “I might just go into politics. That might be fun.”