Our journeys in Kentucky with Josh Poling took us to a small shop that couldn’t appear more different from the likes of Olives & Grace (Entry # 1). It’s called the Gold City Grocery. It is the heart of Gold City, Kentucky.
For a bit of background—the “city” of Gold City is unincorporated. The town got its name in the 19th Century when residents were digging a well and falsely believed they had struck gold. Kaelin Vernon of Peacefield Farms (Entry # 2) suggested we have our breakfast meeting there. We took a drive out through beautiful Kentucky farmland to have a look.
When we arrived, we were greeted with vibrant discussion from the liars table . A group of regulars, we’d guess, were discussing the politics in Simpson County, Ky., over breakfast and a newspaper. One of them clearly thought that the people in Franklin—the much larger county seat of Simpson County—had lost their minds. He put it much more colorfully than that.
Gold City Grocery doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat. When the liars table spotted strangers in their midst, they gave us glances. When the three of us laughed among ourselves within a conversation we were having, they seemed to think we were auditing theirs. “Apparently, someone thinks something’s funny!” one of them exclaimed to their tablemates.
And, as we stood in line for biscuits and various forms of pork, we had barrels facing us from every side.
Meanwhile, the man behind the counter hardly said anything at all. As we placed our breakfast orders and Kaelin informed the store’s owner, Mr. James Neal, that he’d brought us out-of-towners (from near and from far) to Gold City to ask some questions about the business, the signs of uncertainty were clear.
The conversation that followed, as we ate our meals at the counter, was both more awkward and more candid than we thought it would be. Mr. Neal isn’t exactly the gregarious sort, but he was deeply engaged by our conversation. He welcomed our taking pictures. He was surprisingly open about his history with the business, the struggles of running a small business, and even some particulars about profit and loss.
Mr. Neal is a longtime resident and farmer in the area, and he has been a regular at the store for decades. And, when the opportunity arose (or was it more a sense of duty?), he stepped up and bought the store. While he openly acknowledged that retail is hard, Mr. Neal was proud to give local farmers a place to fill up their tanks and grab a few snacks. (The gas tanks actually drive no profit; Mr. Neal has to hope that customers will grab a soda or some potato chips when they come in to pay.)
But Gold City Grocery is about more than convenience. As residents throughout rural regions get used to driving to hub cities like Bowling Green, and as new technologies and platforms keep us connected to networks not defined by geographic proximity, it’s easy to lose the sense that towns like “Gold City” are a place. To make matters worse, communities like Gold City are losing the institutions that make them feel like a place: their schools, businesses, and post office. To lose the general store, too, would have been a terrible blow. Mr. Neal understands he saved more than a store.
Is the Gold City General Store an artisanal business? We can’t imagine Mr. Neal considers himself an artisan. The shelves are lined with convenience store fare, with very little if anything made locally, save for the local newspapers. And this is not a boutique aesthetic, to put it mildly. The store hasn’t survived through marvelous layout or titanic acts of “design thinking.” But, as we watched the regulars settle back into debating the news, and as we paused our conversation to make way for folks passing through to check out at the counter, it was clear that something meaningful was at play.
On our ride back to Peacefield Farms, we asked Kaelin why he calls James Neal “Mr. Neal.” He said it’s a way to acknowledge the reverence and respect Mr. Neal commands in this community. Fair enough, we said, and immediately starting calling him Mr. Neal, too.
Why, we asked Kaelin, did he frequent Gold City Grocery? (Given where Kaelin has his farm, this convenience store isn’t all that convenient.) “Mr. Neal is my connection,” he told us. When Kaelin needs something for his farm that isn’t easy to find, he calls Mr. Neal. Seemingly, word spreads throughout the area. Before long, connections are made. Deals are brokered. And a problem is solved. Not coincidentally, the network that is Gold City gets a little larger and more robust. All of this happens courtesy of Gold City Grocery and Mr. Neal.
It isn’t just his liars table and checkout line that provide the community. It’s Mr. Neal himself. He doesn’t say much. But he listens. Mr. Neal may be a “giant of a man,” and he is a formidable guy to reckon with, but there’s subtlety and nuance here. It’s his business to know most of the people who pass through his doors with any regularity…not just, or even necessarily, what they buy. But who they are. And what they need.
Kaelin tells us that his Gold City Grocery purchases are way to say thank you to Mr. Neal. Gold City Grocery gets no commission for the connections brokered at and through the store. The RC Cola and the Charleston Chew serve as tokens in a larger exchange system, an indirect form of payment for the unofficial services the store offers: the daily labor of preserving, maintaining, and solidifying a community, relationships forged one at a time.
Whether Gold City Grocery is “an artisanal enterprise” is missing the point (though we can’t help but wonder what would happen if space were made on Gold City Grocery’s shelves for products from providers throughout the county). Mr. Neal provides a “town square” and he brokers local connections. And this helps create the ecosystem necessary to support artisanal businesses like Kaelin’s Peacefield Farms. Meeting Mr. Neal, we starting thinking harder about ecosystems. Watch this space for more.
Sam Ford and Grant McCracken