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General store stocked with grit and nostalgia
The last two years, Nell Sullivan has used her Social Security money to keep her general store afloat.
She’s not complaining; she’s spent most of her life working hard at jobs that didn’t pay much.
Even at 83, Sullivan is logging 70-hour weeks, with her son, Doug, at Doug’s Grocery in Stafford County. They eat in the back room and spend most of their waking hours there.
The schedule is hard on Nell Sullivan’s knees, but good for her brain and general well-being.
“It’s therapy for me, and the way I figure, you gotta pay for therapy,” she said. “I’d rather do that than go to the house and be dead in six months.”
Doug’s Grocery is a family-owned business started by Nell Sullivan and her late husband, Douglas, in 1967. They were joined by their only child, Doug, whose mother still calls him “Dougie” because she can’t break the habit after 52 years.
Their store is a hole-in-the-wall, a plain, white one-story structure off Ringgold Road in White Oak. Hand-painted signs that announce what’s available inside line the parking lot.
The store’s floors are concrete, the screen door doesn’t shut right and a “guard frog,” as Doug Sullivan calls it, lets out a “ribbit” whenever someone enters.
It seems like a throwback to another time in a place like Stafford, where the average household income is $96,975—enough to make it the seventh-richest county in America, according to the 2010 Census.
Doug’s Grocery is one of the few mom-and-pop stores that remain among a sea of 7–Eleven, Wawa and Sheetz stores. There’s a Giant Food, less than 2 miles away and down State Route 218.
Matt Longo of Stafford is one customer who likes to walk into the Sullivan store and step back in time.
“Nell told me all her customers are her family, and I could tell she means it,” Longo said. “I don’t usually spend much time talking with cashiers at stores, but I just loved listening and talking with her.”
He said the chocolate moon pie was good, too.
‘APPLE JUICE AND ADVICE’
The Sullivans sell produce and fresh brown eggs, raised in the garden and laid in hen houses right across the road.
They sell salted herring year-round, a favorite of older clients. There’s also frozen crabcakes and oysters in season.
Jams, jellies and blackstrap molasses, produced by McCutcheon’s Apple Products in Frederick, Md., bear the label of Doug’s Grocery and fill several shelves. The typical fare of sodas and beer, cigarettes, milk and lottery tickets is available.
There are also personal exchanges, ranging from a recipe for zucchini bread to information about who’s on the ballot in the county’s November election.
“Apple juice and advice from these people, those are the best things,” said Ernie Ackermann, a computer professor at the University of Mary Washington. “And we’ve got an election coming up, so we need to find out how to vote.”
Holly Duer, who’s from Vietnam, saw signs advertising various vegetables and asked Doug Sullivan if he’d grow bitter melons for her.
The melon is the shape and color of a cucumber, covered with with bumpy warts. It’s true to its name in taste, according to websites, and Asians, especially, say it’s an acquired taste they’ve come to love.
Doug Sullivan agreed to plant some, and Duer and her 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, couldn’t be happier.
“I come in here and I feel like a queen,” Duer said. “Whatever I want, they give me.”
AS THE WORLD TURNS
Nell Sullivan met her future husband when they both worked at the former FMC Cellophane Manufacturing Plant in Spotsylvania County. When he “got a bee in his bonnet” to farm, she said he carried grade-B milk from his dairy cows to the Farmers Creamery in Fredericksburg.
The couple later switched to chickens and had as many as 12,000 laying hens in the mid-1960s. Egg prices were so low, the Sullivans couldn’t pay their feed bill, and Douglas Sullivan got the idea to open a store.
“We figured, if stuff didn’t sell, we didn’t have to feed anything,” she said.
At first, Nell Sullivan couldn’t bear to talk to strangers. Before the store, when people came to their home to buy eggs, they’d beep the horn over and over, and she was so shy, she couldn’t walk out of the house to meet them.
She got over her awkwardness. She’s come to love her perch in the store, where she watches “the world go by” and talks to people about their travels.
“That’s almost as good as going yourself,” she said.
People have told her she hasn’t changed since high school or that she doesn’t look her age.
“I’ll tell you the secret to that,” she said, a smile crossing her freckled face. “Ugly ages well.”
‘I’M A FIGHTER’
Nell Sullivan has worked hard and dealt with her share of setbacks.
She had an abscess in her colon and lost hearing in one ear. A few months after she buried her husband, she learned she had two lumps on her breast.
She had surgery, then rescheduled a knee replacement she’d had to postpone when she learned she had breast cancer.
She spent two weeks at a facility, doing therapy on her knee, and is proud to say she walked out of there.
“You might say I’m a fighter,” she said.
She toys with the idea of closing the store, especially if she has to keep supplementing it with retirement money. Before her husband died four years ago, she was certain she’d close the store after he passed.
But the more she thought about it, the more she worried it would be the end of her, too.
“I’ve worked all my life,” she said. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425