By Shirley Hiers
Old rural stores and gas stations have a lot in common with time machines. One can walk in and feel as though they’ve just been transported back in time. The vibes of a simpler, unhurried era permeate the atmosphere like an invisible mist.
It’s been said we all have our own time machines. Some take us backwards – they’re called memories. Some take us forward – they’re called dreams.
The diversity of those who gather at old country stores is interesting. Any time of day you are likely to find people from different walks of life languishing on rickety bar stools or wooden Coca-Cola crates.
Though all may not have lived the rural life, many are drawn by the Southern mystique of a gracious welcome and made to feel like a family member. In a sense, the store becomes a home away from home.
If time travel were possible, wouldn’t it be a hoot to go back to Richmond Hill in the 1940s? That was when Verge Rushing moved his family from Clyde to Richmond Hill and built the Breezeway. The vintage gas station is a landmark for residents and motorists driving up and down Hwy. 17 through town.
Bubba Strickland has single-handedly run the Breezeway since 1979. For the past 31 years, he has opened six days a week at 6:30 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m. But when Bubba closed the door to the Breezeway on the night of Jan. 5, he knew he wouldn’t be back the next morning – or any morning thereafter.
Closing down a business involves more than locking the doors. The Breezeway wasn’t just a convenience store, it was a gathering place. Bobby Carpenter expressed the feelings of many locals when he said, “This is the end of an era. You won’t see anything like this any more in Richmond Hill.”
Bubba says is going home to begin working on his “Honey-Do List,” which has been accumulating for 42 years. Needless to say, his wife, Carolyn, is excited about that.
The closing of Bubba’s Breezeway will be particularly hard on some of the older or less affluent folks living near the store. For them, the 10-mile round trip into “town” posed a problem – they are not comfortable driving more than a mile or two, and most live within walking distance of the store.
They know when they get to town they won’t be able to shop “on credit.” Bubba’s stack of individual charge accounts on worn, handwritten manila cards caused me to shudder. Were they an omen of heartaches and worry to come?
The eve of the Breezeway’s closing, I was there. From my viewpoint, it was business as usual.
Coleman Sharp, who lives in Hinesville, has known Bubba for many years. He came in for fish hooks. I asked him what he was going to do when Bubba’s closed. With a serious look he said, “I’ve been wondering about that myself.”
Gail Lee came in to buy Tube Rose and Navy snuff for her mother, Verdia Mae Moore. They have been regulars at the Breezeway as long as she can remember. What are the life-long residents of Daniel Siding to do when Bubba closes?
It was obvious Gail was unhappy about the store closing.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do, we hate driving all the way into Richmond Hill,” she said. “Bubba’s given us credit over the years and doesn’t hound us. He’s been good to us and, I assume, to everybody who has come in here.”
For a second, it was as if I wasn’t standing there. Gail looked at Bubba and pleaded, “Bubba, you’ve got to stay…you can’t leave.”
She turned to me and spoke barely above a whisper, “He’s changed my tires, my oil…”
With restrained emotions, Bubba said, “You do what you’ve got to do. As soon as I lock these doors, I know I’m going to miss it.”
Word spread quickly about Bubba closing the Breezeway. An impromptu party was held inside the store the evening before it was closed. There was even live entertainment. Jimmy Hurd, Eugene Clark and Jim Wilson gave one of their best performances.
“We came to play for Bubba’s farewell party,” Wilson said. “It really is the end of an era. First Dinky’s closed, now Bubba’s.”
Not only did they honor Bubba – they entertained him. Hurd’s ability to sing uncannily like Johnny Cash is downright scary. And when he wasn’t singing, he was a stand-up comedy act.
Some of the unpretentious self-invited guests could have walked in straight from Tobacco Road. Yet, there were others from uptown Richmond Hill and from as far as Long County. They had one thing in common – they loved Bubba and wanted to say goodbye.
The crowd was as varied as the few remaining items on Bubba’s counter, including Fred Collins, Ken Tyler, John Baker, Pharis Clark, Gerald Smith, Bobby Carpenter, Richard Davis, Theron Darieng, Bill Smith, Philip Sharp, R.B. Bashlor, Pete Strickland, Captain Kenny, Gregory Michael, James Clark, Dr. Leea Proffitt and her two daughters Kylee and Maurissa, to name a few.
“Every time I think about Bubba’s, I think about the Kentucky Headhunter’s song, ‘Dumas Walker,’” Richard Davis said. “This is Richmond Hill’s Dumas Walker.”
In spite of the revelry that night, there was a discernable sadness in the old cinder block building. I don’t know what type of business will occupy the place in the future.
However, there is one thing I would bet on – it won’t be there 31 years later. I would venture to say when it closes, few will notice. There certainly won’t be a farewell party the likes of what Bubba Strickland had on Jan. 4, 2011.
When I left Bubba’s that evening, the sun was sinking behind the tall pines. I took a deep breath and had that creepy, little kid feeling of standing lost on a street corner. It seemed like everything familiar was passing by.
What will happen to the vintage building? I suppose the question for many is whether the store will be Breezeway in spirit or in name only.
Hiers was born and raised in Richmond Hill. She can be reached at email@example.com.