By Laurie Paolicelli
Farm & Garden Center in Hillsborough was never a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a gourmet grocery store or knick-knack purveyor. Technically the business served as a gas station, country store and produce stand near the intersection of NC-86 and Walnut Grove Church Road. It was a cornucopia of delights: rows and rows of flowers and vegetables, hot sauce that promised to kick your ass from here to Sunday, tables where you could procure homemade soap, sample fudge and cheese, try a local concoction that smooths the skin, refreshing bottles of home-crafted beer and other wonderful things.
But even more than that, for the hundreds of customers who made it a regular stop each week, Farm & Garden represented community, connection, and laughter.
It was one of those neighborhood stores that was a remnant of bygone times, where you bought the staples: milk, bread, snacks and beverages — and took a quick break from the day job. As traditional media sources began to fade, Farm & Garden became known as the place to find out what was going on around Orange County. It wasn’t uncommon to stroll through the garden center and ask about the latest project scheduled on I-85, find out who was running for school board and ask who knew the real story about why one local leader suddenly left town, and who was rumored to replace her. It was a non-partisan pastry joint. All viewpoints were welcomed and debated. Everyone was comfortable with an honest disagreement, because of the deep connection fostered by their community.
The owners, Randy Spencer and Tracy Stone, as well as their longtime employee, Tyler Creech, knew the regulars by name, loved the exchange of stories and laughter, and aimed to offer convenience and groceries and gas to their customers.
In June of this year, a driver crashed his car into the gas pumps. The business was set on fire. “The driver suffered serious injuries,” Tracy Stone said, “but not life-threatening, thank God. But the damage to our store was severe. The whole thing had to be demolished.”
After 25 years the shop was closed. Randy and Tracy took some time to determine what the next chapter of their lives would look like.
What they hadn’t expected is how the loss of their store would impact the community. The telephone lit up, customers took to social media to start a Go Fund Me campaign, and folks near and far begged the couple to stay in Orange County and rebuild.
Says Hillsborough resident Keith Coleman: “Going to The Farm & Garden was like a trip back in time for me, when my grandfather would take me by “the country store” for a treat.”
Now for some good news. Farm & Garden has announced it will rebuild and reopen, hopefully in mid 2021, before spring garden season.
The couple is working with Summit Engineering on a site plan and construction schedule. WL Bishop Architects are now finalizing the design.
“We have 2.7 acres of land and the new store will be moved further back off the road. The floor space will increase by 4,000 square feet.”
Tracy said the new garden center will be located adjacent to the store and there will be four pumping stations. A bigger garden center and greenhouse space will round out the picture.
The new metal building has a wood-facing front made with a dark rough cut and a large porch with rockers.
In southern communities, the country porch is the place where life moves at a relaxed pace. A place for families and friends, and fun and community news.
“Willy Bishop, our architect, is working hard to keep the country elements predominant. That’s what our customers love, a place that feels like community. This rebuild is as much about community as it is a store. The community has been amazing and we feel we owe it to those who have sustained us and who are part of our spiritual family.”
“The Farm and Garden Center is a rare community resource that combines local meats and produce with everyday essentials and the latest community news,” says Bonnie Hauser, a resident of Orange County. “I’m so happy that Randy and Tracy decided to rebuild and continue to serve the community that they love.”
We all know what a country store is. Most of us have been inside one.
But if COVID has taught us anything it’s that we miss seeing one another, of really knowing one another. This is what happens at country stores like Farm & Garden: people are brought together doing the simplest things, like filling up their cars and sampling goat cheese.
Here’s to a spring rebirth.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.