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Long Shelf Life: Rural Grocers

Even as supercenters claim some customers, rural stores stock something the big guys can’t—that personal touch.

Wanda Lee can’t imagine life without Coats Grocery. “In your community, your schools and churches are most important,” says this lifelong Gause resident, a retired hairdresser. “We add Coats Grocery to that.”

The oldest of five children, Lee as a young girl walked across town to pick up necessities when the store was Ely’s Grocery, started in 1940 by the father of current owner Wanda Coats. Back then, Gause boasted three grocery stores, she says. Now only Coats remains, the business anchor in this small, unincorporated community about 85 miles northeast of Austin.

Lee and others note that Wanda Coats and her husband, Al, champion any local cause, whether it’s 4-H, a project at the elementary school or the needs of an individual.

Jimmy Sanders experienced the Coats’ generosity firsthand. The former pastor of Gause Baptist Church has lived in the area for 24 years. “When we were getting started in the ministry here, there were some pretty lean times,” Sanders says. “They helped us out with groceries. They’ve probably helped more people than anybody knows about.”

Customers shop the tiny, two-aisle store for hand-cut steaks and fresh sliced lunchmeat. Coats also offers produce and dairy basics as well as feed and plumbing supplies.

Due to lack of space, shoppers lay their purchases right on the checkout counter rather than using carts. Crunched confines notwithstanding, a bench and chairs sit near the Blue Bell ice cream case where locals visit over 25-cent cups of coffee and freshly made burgers.

“If you want to know what’s going on in Gause, you can come right down to Coats Grocery,” Sanders says. “The economy’s been solved many times, and many Cowboys and Oilers games have been replayed.”

Lee also shops at Coats to find out who needs to be on the church prayer list.

“It’s kind of a center of the community in a way—the center of a lot of things,” Wanda Coats says.

Its proprietors hope the store serves the community for another generation (their daughter works with them full time now). But with supermarkets 10 to 12 miles in any direction, Coats Grocery, like so many other family-run rural stores, contends with shoppers’ willingness to drive the extra distance for more product variety.

Wanda Coats likes to think customers count on her and Al, but larger Texas towns have lost their grocers in the past few years. Rick Johnson, president of the Texas Grocery and Convenience Association, says the number of small-town grocery stores in Texas has been in decline for the past 30 years. Population shifts away from rural areas means “there is not as much demand for the product or service these small retailers are providing, which means not enough income to keep the doors open,” he says.

Maybe the demand is lower, but for people like Lee the value is still pretty high. “When you run out of milk or a loaf of bread, you’d have to drive 10 miles to get it if Coats wasn’t there,” she says. “And if they’re closed and you’re in dire straits, you can call them and they’ll open up for you.”

Halfway across the state, west of Fort Worth, Ray’s Grocery and Market in Breckenridge battles another consumer trend: shoppers’ eagerness to save a few pennies at a chain store.

Just out of high school and married less than a year, owner Lee Olson went into the grocery business in 1974 with his father-in-law, the late Ray Turner. Both men had worked at chain grocery stores, but they made their careers cultivating shopping as a community experience.

“When you go to a supercenter, who do you ask?” Olson wonders. “You stand there and beat on a window.”

“We emphasize to our employees that everyone has a name,” adds Craig Olson, Lee and Beverly Olson’s son, who at 30 represents the third generation of Ray’s leadership. “When you’re not a supercenter and can’t win on price, you have to be better at the things you can.”

A regional chain supermarket does a brisk business just one block to the west. To stay competitive, Ray’s packs services under its 5,000-square-foot roof: drop-off catering, a tiny deli serving breakfast and barbecue lunches, a meat market and wild game processing.

But it’s the personal relationships and camaraderie with fellow shoppers that matter to customers like Louvenia “Lou” Burton. A retired domestic worker living on a fixed income, Burton uses her Ray’s charge account to control her food budget.

“Most of us elderly people, we depend on Ray’s,” says Burton, who moved to Breckenridge after she got married in 1946. “They’re like family. Without Ray’s it just wouldn’t seem like Breckenridge anymore.”

Ray’s eight aisles supply most families’ basics. And a letter-sized sign announces early closings for Breckenridge Buckaroos home football games.

Customer Elizabeth McMillan’s father and brother were ranchers who sold fresh beef to local stores, including Ray’s predecessor, Stewart and Peeks. She and her late husband used Ray’s to cater meals for their oil company employees, and their three children always stopped in after school to charge sodas on the family account.

And just like their grandmother, McMillan’s grandchildren love Ray’s meat market, where everything arrives minimally processed. Behind the thigh-high meat counter, a Ray’s butcher—often Lee Olson himself—customizes any ribeye, strip or roast order.

Before she broke her hip about five years ago, McMillan stopped in the store every morning or afternoon. Now either of two helpers goes in her place, but if those women aren’t on duty, she knows which store in Breckenridge will make a special home delivery.

“If I need something, I just call Lee,” she says. “I’d be awfully lost without Ray’s.”

Writer and editor Beth Henary Watson lives in Mineral Wells.