Contributed by Jeff Harvey
The Deli-Mart is still a gathering place for local residents. In these two stories Jeff first writes about an interview for a the Business of the Week feature and in the second he describes the "Coffee Club," of which he is a member.
Interview with Jerry Peck and Gail Miller
ATHENS - Jerry Peck, owner and operator of the Deli-Mart in Athens, is a man of few words for attribution. Yet, those few words sum up the success of his 21 years and counting in business.
“It’s the customers. Without them, we wouldn’t have a business,” he said Sunday.
The Deli-Mart, so named because it once offered fresh-cooked food from a deli counter, was established by former Princeton businessman Thomas “Buck” Thornton in 1976. Peck, who had been working for Norfolk Southern Railroad and who had been raised in Athens, bought the store in 1985.
Over the years, the store has undergone numerous physical changes, according to day shift manager Gail Miller, who has worked for over 12 years off and on. She noted the remodeling of the store several times to remove the deli counter and open up the wall between it and the former Athens Pharmacy location, where Thornton’s Variety Store , owned and operated as a restaurant by Thornton’s late wife “Libby”, then by Peck’s wife Rosalie, later relocated; converting that space into a beauty parlor (Sue’s Perfect Image, owned and operated separately) and Athens Laundromat, owned and operated by Peck and including basement access to “The Trading Journal” operated separately by Mrs. Peck.
The store offers the usual variety of convenience store items, including a number of basic food items, ranging from snack food and drinks, to milk and bread; cigarettes, beer, a few household items and motor oil and antifreeze, Miller said.
A more recent addition, she said, was the variety of animal-care items ranging from different animal feeds, to medications, to feeders and leashes.
“We carry a big variety of items. We don’t carry everything, but we have a little bit of many things,” she said.
The store’s location, being just south of Athens town limits on Route 20, has been a factor in the store’s continued success, she said.
“We get traffic going to Pipestem and Bluestone (state parks), so we have business even when (Concord University) is not in session. We keep people from having to go to Princeton for just a few items,” Miller said.
A rather unique feature, which is somewhat contradictory to the quote from Goethe that is on display above the front door (“Let each mean in front of his own door and the world will be a cleaner place”), is what Miller called “The Bench of Many Names” and the “Coffee Club”, a gathering of a variety of people, ranging from high school friends of Peck’s to retired school teacher and CU professors.
“We appreciate all of our ‘Coffee Clubbers’ and all of the old and new students. Thanks to all of our customers and keep coming back,” she said.
In addition to Miller and Peck, the store’s eight current employees are Thomas Adkins, Josh Coffey, brothers Jamie and Terrence Carter, Todd Hanchock and Ian Ware, Peck’s son, Jeremy, serves in an “unofficial” supervisory capacity on the evening shift.
The store’s hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Deli-Mart Coffee Club: Progress
ATHENS-In years past, the local general store was a gathering place for people to spend hours talking about life. While that tradition has largely disappeared, there are still a few places where the tradition remains.
One of those places is the Deli-Mart just outside of Athens, where the “Coffee Club” created when it was opened in the mid-1970s still goes strong.
Deli-Mart Day Shift Manager Gail Miller, who has worked there for 12 years to date, said, “I’m a people person (and) I like to come in and see all my regulars. It’s almost like a family since I get to see the same people coming in here and finding out how they are doing.”
Miller said that, while the group has always been in place, it has been getting larger, with the older participants being the constant. Others, prior to retirement, came in when they could, most often either before or after work.
“Bill Lark (now retired from Concord University) wasn’t really a participant until he retired. Grady (McKenzie) worked more. Dale (Pettrey) and Ward (White) still worked on their farms (after retirement),” she said.
The busiest time for the “Coffee Club”, she added, is between 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, when the local construction crews come in for coffee.
“But we have a few come in all through the day,” she said.
Asked what is the most interesting part of her job, Miller said, “(Listening to) the older generation, Wards, Kenneth (Ball) and Dale, when they are remembering their stuff.”
White, 83, a retired school bus driver, said, “We (Ball, Pettrey and himself) talk about the work we used to do, farming and ball games. That’s what I come up here for. It’s a good cup of coffee, too.”
Jerry Larue, a 15-year participant, jokingly said, “It’s the bull. All the world’s problems are solved at the Deli-Mart.”
Ball, who said that he’d been coming up for “eight to 10 years” said, “It’s the friendship. I like to talk to Ward and Dale about farming, sports and work.
John Lawson, like Larue, a 15-year participant, said, “I like the camaraderie with different people and professions. We sit up and talk (and get) news of the town. There’s also the famous ‘Liars Bench’ (where) everybody sits, when weather permits.”
The bench was built by the late Harry Wiley, a building contractor of local renown who died in 1993 at the age of 91. It has since been refurbished twice by Lark, Paul Johnson and Roy Roberts.
One of the newest and youngest members of the coffee club is Jamey Carter, Miller’s co-worker who has been employed at the Deli-Mart for six months. He said, “I like it (and) like talking to them every day. It’s become like family members and, if I quit tomorrow, I’d miss it and them.”
Carter said learning from the older participants has ranged for him from recreational activities such as trout fishing to marriage counseling
“I’ve learned a lot about trout fishing. In fact, I’ve started trout fishing because of talking to some of them. When I went through the hardest time of my life with my marriage, they talked to me and helped me get through it,” he said.
Carter said Tom Ellison, a retired employee of Frontier Communications and a minister, helped him in both areas.
Danny “Bull” White, a high school classmate of Deli-Mart owner Jerry Peck, said, “It’s a good place to talk sports on Sunday.”
Pettrey, who at 88 years old is the oldest participant, said, “It’s been a right smart while since when they first started. I didn’t stop that often then. I just like to visit and talk to people.”
Robert “Bob” McGuire, a retired school principal, said the tradition of gathering started many years before the Deli-Mart was built.
“Everybody used to gather over at the Athens Texaco, owned by Basil Shumate, across the street from here. I’ve lived in Athens since 1956, when I graduated from Concord, and I’ve been coming to (coffee clubs) since then,” he said.
The Texaco station featured Albert Hazelwood playing banjo in the evening, plus a horseshoe pit behind it, he said.
“There was an apple tree to the side and a rock wall to the back. We’d it and watch people throw horseshoes then challenge the winners. (Shumate) always had a raffle going on every week (and) every time you turned around, they were offering you a shot on a ham, a turkey, a gun, just about anything you can think of. Around Valentine’s Day, they’d offer a heart-shaped box of candy. I won a large turkey and a pistol,” McGuire said.
McGuire joked, “I just come up here to get out of work.”
Among those not already aforementioned who took part or take part in “Coffee Club” activities at the two places included, among others, Will Wiley, “Snuffy” Smith (now deceased), Grady McKenzie’s brothers Frank (now deceased) and Ernie, Henry Southern and his son, Junior (both now deceased), brothers Alvie (now deceased) and “Doc” Gadd, Doug Toler, Clowney Hight (now deceased), Rouse Cook, Barty Wyatt (now deceased), Al Beatty, Bob White and his brother David (now deceased), Felix “Junior” Repass (now deceased), Danny Click, father, son and grandson Dave Martin, Sr., Dave Martin, Jr. and Curtis Martin, Bob White, Jack White, Delmar Stillwell, brothers Forrest and Troy Conner, Andy Fudge, Lacey “Junior” Alvis, the late Frank Parker, the late Doyle Lytton, Dennis Presley, Tony “Hobbit” Pettrey, Rudy Meadows, Brian Meadows , Dennis Michael, Hubert “Buddy” Poff, Arthur Gum, Sr., James Brogan, Angie Martin, Jeremy Peck (the owner’s son), Rosalie Peck (Jerry’s wife and Jeremy’s mother and owner of the Trading Journal located in the Deli-Mart’s basement) and Johnny Shorter plus various members of the Athens Volunteer Fire Department and the Deli-Mart staff, which currently consists of Miller, Carter, the elder Peck, Dave Rucker, Jonathan Yost, Eric Arnold, Josh Coffey and Bo Davis.