The Corner Store is a landmark, where Main Street turns to cross Quicquid Creek. It’s on the ground floor of an old brick building with a Flemish gable and a turret at the corner. You can’t miss it.
The store stocks convenience items, ordinary things you use all the time. It also has a unique collection of commercial and advertising art—metal signs, objects, and cartoon characters like Mr. Peanut, Little Debbie, Tony the Tiger, and the Morton Salt Girl.
The star of the collection is Harry the Hotdog. Molded in polyurethane and brightly painted, Harry stands five feet tall in the plate glass window. Wearing only a bun, the winsome wiener squirts mustard on his head and licks his lips.
The proprietor is Christopher “Tuffer” Gibson, son of Dell Gibson, who started the store in 1977 and is no longer with us. Tuffer is in his thirties, tall and lean, with serious brown eyes and a shock of black hair. He has the look of an entrepreneur, yet he insists he has no business plan, no talent for sales, and no delusion he will strike gold.
“I’m the most ordinary person you will ever meet. I never ran with a gang, partied all night, or got high on illegal substances. I did play sports like any normal, healthy boy. As a responsible adult, I’m perfectly content to mop a floor, restock a shelf, or total the day’s receipts.”
At a thousand square feet, the store is small, but it stocks one or two of everything—a roll of toilet paper, a 60-watt light bulb, a can of soup, a little packet of trick candles for a birthday cake that relight when you blow them out.
“If you don’t see it, speak up,” Gibson says. “It’s probably in a box in back, or misplaced by an absent-minded customer who came in for a bag of chips and got distracted.”
Gibson grew up a few blocks away. As a teenager, he worked afternoons and Saturdays in the store under the eye of his father.
“Dell taught me useful skills, but more important, good habits. Wipe up a spill before it turns tacky. People like a clean store. Keep regular hours. People want to know if you’re dependable. Lock the door when you leave, even if it’s only for a minute. People are nosy.”
Tuffer attended the Hapsburg public schools. He was an average student, he says.
“I completed assignments and passed the standardized tests. I wasn’t a big reader. The only subject I was good at was math. I liked getting the right answer.”
He played tuba in the marching band, in the green and gold uniform and plumed busby hat.
“The band needed a tall boy in the rear to support the big brass bell. And stay in step, and keep a steady beat. Um-pah, um-pah, that was me.”
He went on to Quidnunc County Community College, where he earned a two-year degree in business administration. He then worked in human resources for companies in Richmond, Charlotte, and Raleigh. A member of the Society of Human Resource Management, he still subscribes to HR Magazine to keep up with trends in the field.
“You never know when you might have to pick up the ball.”
While Tuffer was away from home, chasing a dream of business administration, Dell Gibson suffered a heart attack. Dell recovered, but was feeble and short of breath, attached to an oxygen tank. He leased the store to a stranger, and the business deteriorated. The lease was not renewed. The store sat empty for a year.
“By then,” Tuffer says, “I was going nowhere and ready for a change. One of the apartments upstairs was vacant. That’s where I live now. It’s a short commute, door to door. I left the big city for a small town, the one where I grew up. And I traded the rat race for minding the store.”
When he arrived, the retail space was in bad shape. How much would it cost to fix? The family talked about leasing it as a luncheonette or a coffee shop.
“I wanted to save it as the Corner Store. Not as it was, but a new, improved version.”
Using his own savings and sweat equity, he patched the concrete slab and covered it with black and white tile like a chessboard. He exposed the brick walls. He removed the stained acoustic panel ceiling, hung new drywall, and painted the plaster white. He installed new lights, plumbing, case equipment, and stainless-steel shelves. He followed all relevant laws, building codes, and guidelines from Town Hall.
“Hapsburg is strict when it comes to restoration. On the other hand, if you follow the rules and keep good records, you can qualify for tax breaks. The bank might turn up its nose, but you can get a loan from an obscure government program or a quirky local charity. Creative finance. This type of project is more than meets the eye.”
During construction, Gibson took progress photographs. Later, he put the photographs in a looseleaf binder for customers to leaf through while waiting for a deli sandwich. From the minute it reopened, the Corner Store was busy. Gibson attributes success to pent-up demand.
“For all the architecture and old-style ambience, the historic district had no mom-and-pop store, no fast food. People were forced to drive outside or walk half a mile to George’s IGA on Metzger Road. I can’t tell you how many times someone walked in, looked around, and sighed with relief.”
Gibson saved items from the old store. He displays them over the wall cooler—a potato chip can, an electric fan, an antique cash register, a produce scale, a Mug Root Beer barrel, and a Royal Crown banner. Well-wishers gave him things they found in their attics and basements. The collection grew. It became an attraction.
“Visitors come from out of town and stare,” Gibson says. “They ask if this is a museum. Given that museums nowadays sell coffee, snacks, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets, the confusion is understandable. Not to mention the art they display. No, the objects are not for sale. I know a retired farmer who collects obsolete tractors. This may be the only stash of vintage merchandising gear in Virginia.”
From the beginning, Gibson stocked the Corner Store from local sources. He carries Virginia wines, which can be pricey, and well-known labels from California. He carries beer from local microbreweries, cider from local orchards, bread baked nearby, and specialty coffee roasted in town. Fresh vegetables, milk, cheese, eggs, and ham come from county farms. Gibson tries out suppliers and products, and he heeds customer requests.
“Drop a note in the box at the door. Signed or anonymous, it’s all the same to me. Or email the name of what you want, who makes it, their address, and so on. Remember, spelling counts when you’re searching online.”
Gibson scoffs at the idea of a boutique. Yet he admits his store is one of a kind. Canned goods include brands you won’t find at a chain grocery, like Mrs. Fearnow’s Brunswick Stew. Big name soft drinks are on hand, but so are natural fruit sodas in pretty glass bottles imported from Italy. Gibson downplays tobacco, but a shelf of cigarettes, chew, snuff, and vape is behind the counter. Virginia Lottery tickets are a big seller. Gambling is a vice, but Gibson allows for human nature.
“I’m not here to make you a better person, just a satisfied customer.”
There are daily specials and frequent rearrangements. Gibson posts updates on the store’s Facebook page. For Halloween, he puts a giant pumpkin out front, with a bale of hay, a shock of cornstalks, and normal-size pumpkins to carve. His mother Rhonda brings seasonal decorations she saved over the years, including stuffed animals, strings of colored lights, and an inflated skeleton. A retired nurse, Rhonda often sits in a chair in the window. She favors big hats and bright colors. She is happy to talk, and she has opinions. A blown-up photograph of Dell Gibson stares down from a wall.
Quite a few people burst through the door and make a beeline for the Gaggia coffee maker, where one pot is ready and one is noisily brewing. Gibson has drunk too many cups of stale, burnt, and acrid coffee, so he makes sure his is always fresh. Bring your own reusable container, or help yourself to a biodegradable paper cup. No Styrofoam or plastic on the premises.
Beside the gleaming chrome appliance, a chain of hand-carved wooden monkeys hangs from the ceiling. One or two inches long, each monkey raises an arm and hooks the tail loop of the monkey above, seemingly to infinity. On close inspection, no two monkeys are alike.
“They came from Java. I went on a coffee plantation tour in Indonesia. It’s like a winery tour here in Virginia. You go by chartered bus through the countryside, see acres of coffee bushes, and visit a warehouse where they sort and bag the beans. You can taste what is grown on the land. Along the way, we visited Achmad’s family.”
Achmad, who is originally from Indonesia, mans the deli counter and makes sandwiches. He fishes pink hard-boiled eggs from a big glass jar, pickles from another jar, and hotdogs from an electric rotisserie. Gibson works the cash register, greets everyone who enters, straightens, and cleans. He recycles all waste. The store is spotless. The boss puts in long hours, Monday through Saturday.
“This is my baby,” he says. “I spend most of my waking hours here, and I want it to look right. Big box retailers can buy in bulk, cut prices, offer generic merchandise, and skimp on service. We have a different attitude.”
The store takes cash, credit cards, and other electronic forms of payment. It does not allow customers to run up tabs, with a few exceptions.
“The end of the month is hard on some people,” Gibson says. “They run out of money and can’t buy. If I treat people fairly and honestly, I can sleep at night. I live here, too.”
As a good neighbor, the Corner Store shuns bright exterior lights and loud music. On the sidewalk are a café table and two spindly chairs, available to any passerby who needs to pause for a moment. Here also are bedding plants from a community garden. The store has a bulletin board for flyers, ads, business cards, and fan mail. Evenings are hectic, but Gibson encourages people to drop in during the day to say hello. He props the door open in good weather. He may request a favor.
“Did you know this is where Hapsburg began? On this very spot stood the Happ homestead. According to the story, the family camped here on their way south from Pennsylvania. Joseph Happ was born overnight, and his mother refused to budge. In 1750, Joseph laid out the town next to the homestead. I asked the Historical Society for a bronze plaque, a marker to put on the storefront. Would you like to sign the petition?”
Margaret Howe, president of the Historical Society, is sympathetic but cautious.
“Tuffer Gibson is correct about the oral tradition, but there is no proof. The Dietrich and Elfrieda Happ homestead probably stood on or near the site of the store, under the famous oak tree. Both disappeared without leaving a trace, though every child learns the little song:
Mighty oak of the infant birth,
Stay forever green on earth.
“The earliest plat of the town simply shows the creek, street layout, and lots—no buildings. Joseph Happ knew where his house was, so why draw it? All that aside, the Gibson family has made a valuable contribution to the quality of life downtown. We want to honor them, while staying within the bounds of historical truth.”