Sunday, July 19, 2009
Go to L. M. Phillips General Merchandise in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, and you’ll meet proprietress Margaret Phillips and the house border collie, Maggie. If you happen to meet Maggie first and haven’t had the pleasure before, there may be a learning curve. You and Maggie will learn to appreciate each other. Or at least that’s the way it was with me.
While I was eyeing a large, closed store across the street from Phillips General Merchandise, Maggie alerted the town of 159 souls that a suspicious interloper was in the neighborhood. Denise Musgrove, a (the) Phillips employee, castigated Maggie a bit for her unneighborly behavior. I responded by assuring Denise that I understood Maggie was merely doing her job — and doing it pretty well at that.
My intentions on this story were initially misguided. The older, larger, closed store across the street is emblazoned with an intriguing, but now unfulfilled message, which piqued my curiosity, to wit: “Goods in endless variety for Man or Beast.” It did not take long for the story to change course.
Not any more. Check across the street.
After a few peaceful overtures to Maggie, I entered Phillips General Merchandise. There is no sign on the store, so I wasn’t really certain it was a store, but the mystery was solved as soon as I opened the door. Maggie and I made our grand entrance simultaneously. I prepared to engage in conversation, while Maggie, faster than a speeding bullet, circled the counter and took up her position between Margaret Phillips and yours truly. Margaret explained that Maggie was somewhat protective. I didn’t need to be told.
When the dog took up her position, knowing the moment would be fleeting, I immediately started shooting. Margaret, after being subjected to a burst of five shots from the Nikon and a question or two from a large strange man, inquired, “And who are you?” (If you read between the lines, the tone indicated a different conversation, to wit: Who the $#@!^%$# are you and what are you doing here?)
I explained my benign intentions. She was satisfied.
It was about then that I decided the story was not across the street, but right in front of me. Margaret Phillips revealed the chain of events. L. M. Phillips General Merchandise started business in 1925 as Phillips Brothers, located beside the Bank of Fountain Hill in the same building as the bank. The bank went out of business in 1933, but Phillips General Merchandise has been in continuous operation since. Shortly thereafter, the Phillips brothers began using the old bank building for storage.
Several years ago, there was a fire in the building. In the rebuilding process, the Phillips folk knocked out a goodly section of the wall between the store and the bank, turning the previous bank entrance into a new entrance for the store. The bank safe is still in place, replete with a calendar sporting the area’s target of choice, a white-tail buck deer.
L. M. Phillips acquired his brother’s interest in the business in 1974 and renamed it to its present moniker. Until L. M. Phillips’ death in 1979, Mr. Phillips ran the store. Margaret was otherwise engaged as a school teacher for 31 years in nearby Hamburg, Arkansas. After her husband’s death, Margaret did both jobs until her retirement from teaching in 1988.
Now in its 84th year of operation, the business is alive, well and healthy. Margaret Phillips runs the store with her smiling and capable assistant, Denise Musgrove — and, of course, Maggie.
On Saturday afternoon yesterday there was a steady stream of customers, one of whom unsuccessfully attempted to chisel Margaret down on the price of a carton of cigarettes. The boy should have known better than to mess with a woman who taught school for 31 years. He paid full price.
One should note, there is another store operating in Fountain Hill, a convenience store with gas pumps. Phillips General Merchandise doesn’t pump gas, but it doesn’t seem to matter. In spite of the Great Depression, wars, a bit of pestilence here and there, plus other inevitable ravages of history, this unique business continues to prosper — and from what I can tell, is a beloved and essential ingredient in the fabric of this community.
Somebody is doing something right and has done so for a long time. I wonder what the Harvard Business School would have to say about that. Probably not much, because so far, they haven’t inquired into the nature of the secret. I doubt Margaret is losing any sleep over their lack of curiosity.
No country store is complete
N O T E S:
Most of the time, there is more to the Photo of the Week story than can be told in an essay. And most of the time there are more pictures to be seen. Presuming that some folk will enjoy being privy to this trove of information, I have created a blog, “Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind,” where I am showing and telling “the rest of the story." There are also some blatantly commercial mentions of some of the things we do to earn our beans and taters. Click on the Weekly Grist logo and go to the blog. — J. D.