By Laurie Paolicelli
As we say goodbye to one year out and with open arms welcome a new one, our thoughts turn to friends and family who have worked hard in 2022 to usher in a new day and celebrate 2023 with hopes for a bright future.
In northern Orange County, Randy Spencer and his wife Tracy Kelly Stone operate one of the most popular country grocery stores in the area. Farm & Garden has long served as the place to stop for milk, bread, local pastries, local wine, updates on stormwater initiatives, and news of neighbors in need, sick or recovering.
In a very real sense Farm & Garden embodied the spirit of the community, a close-knit group representing connection, and laughter.
In 2020, a car careened out of control and into one of the posts supporting the large canopy that offered shelter to customers buying gas at one of the fueling pumps. Fuel that leaked from the car ignited, creating a massive ball of light and fire, made more brilliant by the rural darkness. “The driver suffered serious injuries,” Tracy Stone said, “but not life-threatening, thank God. Yet the damage to our store was severe.” Devastating damage — the entire store had to be demolished.
Suffice it to say, 2020 wasn’t a great year for Randy and Tracy and family. There was no question that they wanted to rebuild, but remember, this happened in 2020, when simply going outside felt dangerous, let alone haggling with builders, ordering supplies in a backed-up pipeline, and negotiating with county and state officials. Lock down wasn’t easy.
What Tracy and Randy had not expected is how the loss of their store would impact the community. The telephone lit up, customers took to social media to start a GoFundMe campaign, and folks near and far begged the couple to stay in Orange County and rebuild.
“Lots of people told us how much they missed us,” Randy said. “Everywhere we went — the grocery store, Home Depot, wherever, people stopped us to ask how we were doing.”
What COVID taught us, among many other things, is that what we missed more than anything was community. The stay-at-home order prevented us from hugging family and friends, checking in on neighbors, and gathering to celebrate the birth of babies, marriages, life’s passings, and all the day-to-day miracles we had taken for granted.
You never know what you are going to miss the most when life changes, but Randy and Tracy can tell you that their store, Farm & Garden, represented more than groceries and gas and botanicals.
And now to the happy ending. The new store opened in May 2022 and residents and visitors are thrilled to be back.
In the 23 months it took to get Farm & Garden back in business, what Spencer said he and his wife most missed was seeing regular customers and making new acquaintances. Now that the business has reopened, every day is like a reunion.
Randy Spencer and Tracy Stone, as well as their longtime employee Tyler Creech, get energized exchanging stories and sharing laughter with their friends and patrons, while at the same time providing groceries and gas. Tracy especially loves having the garden open again, a favorite stop among visitors and locals.
Farm & Garden Center in Hillsborough was never a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a gourmet grocery store or knick-knack purveyor. Technically, the business was just 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, local concoctions that smooth the skin, refreshing bottles of home-crafted beer, and other wonderful things. It is again.
After all, sometimes you want to grab a bottle of Snoop Dog wine and local baked goods while filling the tank. It’s true, what they say: you need a place where everybody knows your name. All of us do.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.