About 80 miles separates the Punkin General Store, in the western part of the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative service area, from Harris Country Market, in the far eastern portion of the Cooperative’s territory.
Harris Country Market, like the Honey Island and Punkin general stores previously featured in this series, is family operated and has found a way to support its customers for more than 37 years. Family is the operative word for store owner Linda Harris. She said she has no plans to sell the store and retire any time soon, but when she does, she would like for a couple to buy it, just like she and her husband, David, did 37 years ago.
Back then, they found themselves in a position similar to that of Ron Young, before he and his daughter purchased the building that became the Punkin General Store that was featured in last month’s issue of Texas Co-op Power.
David had lost his job at Texas Oil & Chemical, Harris said. “He was working 12-hour schedules. He walked in on a Monday, and they closed the plant down.”
Harris explained their son had just graduated from Jasper High School, and he was about to attend Lamar University. The couple could have gone overseas to work in oilfields, but Harris wasn’t ready to be half a world away from her son.
“We just started driving around, and this store was for sale,” she said. “[David] wanted to try it, so we ended up buying it. We took the money we had saved to put down on a house in Beaumont and put it down on this store. We opened a little meat market, and we have been at it ever since. It just gets in your blood.”
Harris has been the sole owner of the market since David died in June 2018. A small, handmade quilt honors David and longtime employee Carole Milstead on a wall in the store. The memorials hang next to a plaque, presented by the store’s employees and coffee drinkers, thanking the Harrises for serving the Town Bluff community throughout the decades.
Town Bluff may not seem much more than the store, a park overlooking B.A. Steinhagen Lake and Dam B, and a few homes along FM 92, but Harris remembers when the community was livelier than it appears today.
“Probably 20 years ago, when this was a thriving community, people would tell us when they were going home if they had a camp house up here, and they would say we will be back in a week, month or whenever,” she said. “We knew where everyone lived. Now people are in and out, but we still have old customers that come and check on us.”
There are several reasons why customers keep returning to check in with Harris. The store offers live bait and tackle for local anglers, and Harris said the hand-dipped ice cream is extremely popular in the summer. The store also makes its fountain drinks stronger than most places, which customers really enjoy.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris could barely keep enough bait and tackle in the store for all the fishermen.
“When everything was shut down, people decided they would get out and fish,” Harris said. “They wouldn’t be close to anyone, and for probably 8–10 weeks we couldn’t keep tackle or bait. Our bait people were coming on Monday, Thurs-day and Saturday to bring us fresh minnows and worms. The tackle guy was coming every two weeks, as usual, but he would bring us what he would normally bring in three months, on one trip.”
According to Harris, the store’s deli has been rediscovered during the pandemic. Locals have known about the deli for years and appreciated it, but newer customers are just now finding out about it and its takeout service.
“Since the virus, people are telling their friends that when they stop by Town Bluff, to stop and get a burger, sandwich or a shrimp wrap,” Harris said.
Repeat customers have made trips to Harris Country Market part of their routine. In the past, a sheriff’s deputy would come for the shrimp wrap, and one couple still makes the trip from Silsbee about once a month to get a meal and eat at the park across FM 92, according to Harris.
“I stop to eat lunch every once in a while,” said Robert Jackson, a Sam Houston EC line technician. “Sometimes you see someone you haven’t seen in a while. Every now and again, if you are lucky, you get some of Ms. Harris’ black bean soup or a watermelon.”
Jackson has worked at the Co-op going on nearly 20 years, but he has known Ms. Harris, as he still calls her, since well before he started serving the communities of East Texas as a line technician for the Co-op.
“It is more family than it is a business,” Jackson said. “If we had a problem with where to find a location or a road number, [David Harris] was great with that, and it is just good to stop and visit every now and then.”
The folks at Harris Country Market have always been good friends to Sam Houston EC and its employees. They have provided cool drinks and food for years to the Cooperative’s line technicians during outages. They even delivered several pizzas to line technicians as they were replacing poles and restoring power after a storm in May 2019.
“They are out there in the weather 90% of [the] time,” Harris said. “We may be at home without power, but we aren’t standing where trees have fallen and lines have fallen. We are not putting our life on the line to hook up power. They are essential workers, and they need to be recognized.
“We just have a bond with this group of guys. We have had it for years. When they found out that David was sick, they had a prayer the next morning. They gathered in their office and held a prayer service. I said, ‘How many young people would stop and have prayer for an older person?’ A few of them attended his funeral, too.”
Jackson, like many Co-op employees, lives in the area he serves, so he understands how valuable small stores like Harris Country Market are to communities like Town Bluff, Honey Island and Punkin.
“The community would be at a huge disadvantage if this store wasn’t here,” Jackson said as he waited for his food order. “A lot of people rely on the store for groceries, plumbing supplies, food, fuel and more. If the store wasn’t here some [community members] would have to do without. Some walk or catch a ride from a neighbor. It is a big benefit to the area.”
Sam Houston EC employees and locals aren’t the only repeat customers. Former employees of the store still stop in to talk and make purchases, too.
“I come back to shop here because I love the ladies,” said Danielle Peña. “We are one big, happy family. It is convenient, but we also like to support our local community. Linda still makes it about the people, not about the money.”
Peña worked at the store a few years back, and her mother still works at the market. According to Harris, they aren’t the only mother-daughter tandem to have worked at the market over the years.
Anyone visiting the store for more than a few minutes will pick up on the family atmosphere that radiates throughout the store, and that is no coincidence.
“We try,” Harris said. “If you tell someone good morning or good afternoon when they come in, you don’t know what kind of day they are having. Maybe that one sentence will perk them up. I hope so. I try to be kind when they leave. You just never know what someone is going through.
“I hope [customers] return because they enjoy coming on by, whether it is a five-minute trip or 30-minute trip. I hope that is the reason. I feel like if they didn’t like coming in, they wouldn’t come back.”