In the corner of a small, poorly lit back-room, a dusty mason jar filled with fuses sits partially concealed behind a pair of scuffed, sand colored crutches; beside a showcase window, the small, black pupils of an iguana stare through the bars of its cage past a table containing an 8-track cassette of Guy Lombardo waltz favorites, ancient versions of Madden NFL video games, and a plastic encased tire repair kit; beneath a shelf of porcelain dolls, a pair of 1960’s-era high school yearbooks sit atop a lime-green Victor cash register, the smiling faces peering out at passersby from beneath their beehive hairdo’s and antique buzz cuts.
Walking into your average, small town thrift store can feel like taking a plunge into an alternate reality, where the present collides with the past in surreal combinations at once fascinating and strangely disorienting, invoking both nostalgia and amused astonishment.
A mainstay of the American landscape since World War II, these small, often family-owned establishments offer prices well below big name retail stores on both new and used merchandise as well a place to search out rare curios and one of a kind antiques. Citizens from all economic and social walks of life can be found mingling amongst their cluttered aisles.
Unfortunately, the unique merchandise and clientele hasn’t made theses stores immune to the economic pressures of the 21st century, pressures that threaten to wipe out yet another pocket of the unusual and eccentric in the global plunge towards homogenization.
Howard and JoAnne Merritt, owners of Indoor Flea Market on Roanoke Avenue, have seen the decline first hand. Having worked together in the store for the past 16 years, the couple has watched other businesses in the area come and go.
“We’ve had a lot of places here similar to ours that didn’t last, but we’re hanging in there. At least we’re trying to,” says JoAnn, leaning against the stores counter beside a cash register with a small American flag taped to its side.
The veteran storeowners estimate their business is off at least 70 percent, a decline they lay squarely at the feet of the recent economic downturn.
“With the economy and gas prices, it’s hurt a lot of businesses,” states JoAnne, while her husband nods his head in agreement and adds, “If we weren’t drawing our social security checks we couldn’t stay afloat. We can’t even afford to advertise.”
Beyond simple monetary issues, the couple has also had to deal with a string of robberies – six in the last 16 years – that has left them shaken yet resolved.
“We’ve had to survive the break-ins as well as the bad economy, but we still try to have the same friendly service,” says JoAnne, “We’re still the same mom and pop place.”
Although business is suffering, the Merritts are quick to point out that their motto has remained the same.
“We try not to raise prices unless it’s absolutely necessary; our stuff is a still a lot better than Wal-Mart,” smiles Howard, proudly pointing to his prized collection of knives and swords, which are particularly strong sellers.
Just up the road, at Allgood’s General Store, owner Steve Allgood wipes sweat from his neck, shakes his head and looks across the crowded aisles of used furniture.
“Our business is down every bit of 65 percent. But I guess aint nobody going gangbusters,” he says with a tight-lipped grin, glancing towards his mother, Ruby, who’s working the store’s counter.
Allgood isn’t shy about discussing the current state of the used goods business in Roanoke Rapids.
“With the taxes going up because of the mess with the city and the gas prices, we can’t hardly stand to stay in business. Nobody has any money to go shopping. That’s why you have all these yard sales on Saturday,” he states, before throwing up his hands, pointing towards the back of the store and adding, “I’ve got a bedroom set priced at $2,000 that I’ve yet to draw a bid of $400 for.”
In business at their current location for 6 years, Allgood says he’s seen a marked decrease in foot traffic, but still draws customers from areas as far flung as Georgia, Maine, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“People come here because of cheaper prices, quality merchandise, and friendly service,” interjects Ruby, her small frame barely visible above the cluttered counter. “We have a lot of repeat customers because we have a wide variety of constantly changing merchandise, so it’s a fantastic place to browse.”
Steve started working auctions when he was 14 and says he buys most of his used furniture from out of state, bringing in new merchandise several times a week from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Although rising gas prices have made traveling more expensive–it costs $250 to fill up his truck with diesel–he still hesitates to buy from locals.
“I have anywhere from 10 to 20 calls a day to collect whole households. But it’s hard when you live in a small town and you know you may see those same people on the street. These people can’t afford to pay rent and put food on the table.”
As Merritt walks outside to inspect a new load of furniture, Roberta Lynch, an Allgood’s regular, ambles towards the counter with an arm full of pillows.
“I’m always popping in here,” she says, a wistful smile playing across her face. “You can pick up a lot of nice things for a really good price. I just got these pillows for $5. Times are very hard but you can come in here and get most anything.”
Like the Allgood’s, Lynch says she’s witnessed the human toll taken by the recent economic hardships.
“I watch all the people without jobs come through here. We’re leaving a lot of people behind.”
A few blocks to the west on Tenth Street, the iguana stares out of its cage at the few customers browsing amongst the worn album covers and chipped liquor decanters at Bargain Land.
Owner Dean Joyner is in the process of remodeling, but takes a few minutes to talk about the business he’s cultivated over the last two years and the changes he’s seen.
“Since probably March and April, business is down about 40 percent. I still get my regular customers but not a lot of new people. They’re just scared to spend their money right now.”
Like the Merritt’s at Indoor Flea Market, Joyner has been forced to cut back on the store’s hours in an effort to save money on electricity, leaving the store empty on Mondays and Tuesday’s.
“I just wasn’t selling enough on those days to cover the lights I was using,” he states sadly.
Joyner says his most popular item is fishing bait and brags that his store is the only place in Roanoke Rapids that sells goldfish because, “Wal-Mart doesn’t carry ’em anymore, you know.”
In a small clearing towards the back of the store, a group of young men sit around a card table, shouting instructions and laughing as dusty shafts of sunlight filter across their faces.
The game is part of the weekly Yu-Gi-Oh tournament held at the store, usually on Sundays. Based on the popular Japanese trading cards, the tournament draws players from all across the Valley.
Like the other storeowners, Joyner seems anxious about the future, but determined to carry on. Looking across at the card players, he smiles and says, “Business may be slow right now, but we’re looking to send a Yuy-Gi-Oh team to the national tournament this year, so I’m excited.”
While the stagnant economy has hit these businesses hard, their owners all seem to recognize that they offer the community something beyond low prices and outdated oddities.
As JoAnne Merritt puts it: “I dreamed of opening a store like this for a long time. It was a hard decision but finally I just decided to do it. People love this place because they just never know what they might see, they never know what they might find.”
Looking back over their 16 years in business, her pride is obvious as she remarks on the bond her and her husband have built with their customers.
“People come in here and tell us how glad they are to see us. They’ll come in here and hug our necks, bring us pictures of their kids and people who have passed away. We’ve seen children grow up right here in this store.”