“Closed, due to permanent vacation,” reads a sign on the door of Hemmings Superette in the Flat Rock community.
Donald Hemmings, 85, and Mary Lou Hemmings, 75, recently chose to end a more than half-century run in the grocery business. The neighborhood grocery store was one of few remaining small grocery stores in a market dominated by much larger chain stores.
Donald Hemmings said the business had its beginnings before World War II, when a a man with brick-laying experience decided he wanted to get into the grocery business. He built his own store in 1937 at the corner of Linville Road and Stanley Road. Hemmings bought it 12 years later, after graduating from Flat Rock High School in 1948.
Hemmings’ 67 years in business didn’t come without interruption. He served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955, stationed at Gibbs Barracks near Frankfurt, Germany. While Hemmings was away in service to his country, he said his mother and father ran the business.
Family became something on which the couple leaned in recent years, too. Mary Lou said she and her husband came to rely on the aid of her son, Mark Thomas, to keep things going.
Donald said Mary Lou was also instrumental in keeping the store up and running. It seems he bagged both a wife and a cashier when the couple married in 1974.
“If it hadn’t been for her we would’ve never made it,” said Donald.
The couple said years filled with 12-hour days and a lot of work were worth it because of the relationships they formed.
“We survived because we had some very good people, loyal customers, who kept shopping with us,” explained Donald.
“I wasn’t ready to leave. I really miss it. I miss the customers,” added Mary Lou.
A band of regulars is what made competing against large stores possible in today’s market, according to Donald.
Donald said he also extended lines of credit to many of those customers throughout the years, a practice lost in the world of larger grocery stores. He continued the practice throughout the duration of his years in business, even long after other stores had done away with it.
“It used to be there were about 15 little stores between Mount Airy and Ararat, Virginia,” said Donald. “Some of them were just a room in somebody’s house. We called them mom-and-pop stores.”
He added most of those are now out of business.
Donald said he started to see the market shift about four decades ago. That’s when a Salisbury grocery store chain, known as Food Town then, cose Mount Airy for the location of its fourth store. Now there are three Food Lions in Mount Airy.
Donald said another matter affecting the operations of small grocery stores is the availability of wholesale foods. When Mosely and Reece, a wholesale company in Mount Airy, sold its operations about five years ago, it hurt the availability of products for businesses like Hemmings Superette.
“That’s when I started thinking about getting out,” noted Donald.
Ironically, Donald said he purchased much of the food at his shop in recent years through a wholesale account with Food Lion.
“They’ve been good to me,” said Donald. “I was able to buy from them, sell the food at sale prices and still turn a profit.”
Of course, it took work to build the Hemmings Supperette customer base. Donald said it went beyond just being friendly. He had to do something to stand out, offer a product not easily found other places. His store had its niches.
“For years, we had our own meat market,” said Donald. “We made pork sausage. We mixed it ourselves.”
Donald said his sausage was a hit.
“People would call to ask when the next fresh batch would be ready,” said Donald. “We had people drive from Lowgap and Pilot Mountain for it.”
Another thing loyal customers may miss is the oysters offered at the small store.
“We were the only store in Surry County that sold fresh oysters,” remarked Donald. “Seven or eight years ago, I sold 31 gallons of oysters around Christmas time.”
Donald said 67 years in business was tiring.
“If I’d have known it was going to be this much work, I might have just stayed in the service,” chuckled Donald.
While Mary Lou may not be as ready to take a break from the demands of running the store, Donald said he’s ready.
His “permanent vacation” has already consisted of a number of days filled with fishing.
“I should have went today,” said Donald, as he pointed out Wednesday afternoon’s beautiful weather.
Donald said his former business is now for sale, indicating he had already gotten a couple offers for the property.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.