Back in the early 1900s, folks would stop in at John Lawrence Burgess’ general store to pick up flour, sugar and coffee – and all the necessities that they couldn’t produce themselves.
If the proprietor wasn’t in, they’d ring a bell out front to summon him for service.
“He’d be out working in the fields, and somebody would ring that bell, and he’d come in and trade with them,” said his great-grandson, Mark Burgess.
Things have changed a lot since those days, but the concept of a general store as a community institution hasn’t, at least not in the Upstate community of Pickens.
Burgess took up the family tradition three months ago and opened Burgess General Store on Main Street. You can still get coffee – although it’s of the fair trade variety – and you can still pick up on the latest local news, via Wi-Fi if not from your neighbors who happen by.
Although he comes from a long line of storekeepers, Burgess, 52, comes to this phase of his life after a multifaceted career that includes working as a telecommunications manager, a soldier, a builder, a Baptist minister, and an author of books on addictions recovery.
His wife, Krystal, is a registered nurse and traveling consultant in the nursing home industry.
“This is our retirement,” Burgess said of his new-old store at 710 W. Main St., Pickens.
The store, which he and his 82-year-old father, Jack, remodeled from a 1938 vintage gas station/general store, opened in March.
He’s still working on filling it with merchandise but already it has a variety of goods, much of it locally produced, that would be hard to find anywhere else.
And a corner in the back is designated as a local trading post, where money never changes hands as customers bring in items to trade for what they want. It’s much like it was in the old days at his great-grandfathers store, when “They would trade anything that people could produce, and sometimes anything they could kill.”
If anybody in Pickens County has a legitimate claim to the mantle of old-time storekeeper it would be Burgess.
His family, which descends from Norsemen through Scotland and England, came to these shores in 1734. Many of his forebears traveled west, ending up in Wyoming, where the town of Burgess Junction bears witness to their prominence as traders.
His ancestor Joshua Burgess traded a horse to a Cherokee Indian for 900 acres in the area that is now the Greenville Watershed in 1789. That was the beginning of good fortune for the Burgesses in the Upstate.
The family grew and thrived, and by 1918 John Lawrence Burgess had opened his store near the intersection of what is now S.C. 11 and S.C. 8, in a 14-by-20-foot wooden building.
In 1938, his great-uncle Quince bought most of the area around the Pumpkintown crossroads and built the first Pumpkintown General Store. The store that is still at that site is now owned by his cousin Joe Burgess.
It was there that Mark Burgess got his first taste of storekeeping some 35 years ago, when the place was owned by his Uncle Dell.
“It was truly a country store,” he said. “It had everything. People would buy groceries there, clothing, gasoline. We had a meat market back there. We’d slice cheese and bologna and ham, whatever we had back there.”
The extended family sprouted businesses across Pickens County and into western Greenville County until the Burgess name became synonymous with small, independent commerce the area.
“I have cousins and uncles, of course, that have owned stores all over Pickens County,” he said. “Grocery stores, restaurants.”
Mark wasn’t immediately drawn into the life of a shopkeeper, though, after graduating from high school at Bob Jones Academy in the early 1980s.
He first teamed up with his father, who, in addition to pastoring two churches, ran an independent homebuilding company. He eventually started his own construction business.
As a recession hit and demand for construction began to wane, he joined the Army Reserves, going on active duty for two years in a satellite communications unit at Augusta, Georgia.
Then he went back into construction but remained in the Reserves for another six years.
His work in communications in the Army sparked his interest in a career in that field. He earned an associate’s degree in electronics in his spare time and went to work for ADT Security Services, where he stayed for 10 years.
He was an operations manager by the mid-to-late ’90s when he got caught in a downsizing and 1,200 employees lost their jobs in one day.
He went to work for Belk and held several other retail jobs over a period of a little less than a year before he took a job as a technician for BellSouth.
He eventually became a manager there and was relocated to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was a network manager there when something happened that altered the course of his life again.
The voice of God
He was sitting in his car in a mall parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee, eating lunch, when it happened. He felt the voice of God redirecting his life.
“When the Lord speaks to you, it’s very clear,” he said. “It’s very plain.”
Even though he had never had problems with drugs or alcohol, he felt that he was being asked to show the way to healing for those who have.
In 2003, Burgess says, he “answered God’s call on my life to become a preacher” and took a correspondence course from Bethany Divinity College.
He started working with people suffering from addictions, spending two years at a recovery center called Lighthouse for Men in Corpus Christi, Texas.
He felt compelled to write a book about the program he developed. It was called “Discovery of Hope: Biblical Pathways to Addictions Recovery.” As a writer, he uses his full name, Garland Mark Burgess, to distinguish himself from another author named Mark Burgess.
“The Lord has given me an understanding of addictions and what people face when they have addictions,” he said.
He followed that up with a second book in 2011, “Making a Difference: Teaching Biblical Addiction Recovery.”
Both are available on Amazon.com.
Burgess continues to write on the subject.
The Burgesses spent time as caretakers on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, while the owners were away on a missionary trip.
Then they decided to buy a motorhome, since his wife traveled so much on her job, and Mark could do his writing from anywhere. They did that for about a year.
Two years ago, they decided to come home to be closer to their aging parents.
Opening a store was not in their plans at the time. They just wanted to settle back into the Pickens community. Krystal is a native of Six Mile.
Her father died soon after they returned home, and they started thinking about opening a store.
Within a month, they had found the perfect building. It was one of those old-style service stations with a roof over a ramp to the pumps, connected to a storefront.
It has been a jewelry store, a pawn shop and a flower shop since its days as a gas station/general store, and had been vacant for several years.
It took a lot of work to get it to look the way an old-fashioned general store should work, including adding a hardwood floor, and shelving.
“We wanted to keep that rustic, old, country kind of feel,” Mark said.
He teamed up with the Pickens Innovation Center, a new entrepreneurial incubator in downtown Pickens, to help get the store off the ground.
“We wanted the store to be unique, different from anything in Pickens,” Mark said.
They used some of their savings to open the store debt-free.
Much of the merchandise is produced locally – from potholders to toys, soap, candles, walking sticks, and refrigerator magnets.
There’s a book section – which includes, of course, books the owner has written.
There are also plenty of the kind of items one might expect to find in an old-time store: old-fashioned candy in barrels, herbal remedies and essential oils, things like lotion made from goat’s milk. Then there is a refrigerator full of old-fashioned soda pop brands such as Boylan Blenheim and Jones.
And you can find exotic locally produced food items, including beef jerky and jams. How does raspberry jalapeno sound?
There’s raw milk, Clemson blue cheese, and bulk foods, including steel-cut oats, hard red wheat, and a variety of beans.
Everything is organic and non-GMO, Burgess said.
The coffee selection includes all organic, free trade varieties such as Bird of Paradise, Mind, Body and Soul, and, the specialty of the day one day recently: Love Buzz.
One of the most popular sections of the store is the Self Reliance area. There, you can find things like mylar bags, used to store food, canning supplies,
heirloom vegetable seeds, emergency food kits, and severe weather gear.
There’s a do-it-yourself section, a cooking section, a kid’s corner with toy brands you won’t find in the big box stores.
The store may be a throwback, but it’s designed to fill the needs of the 21st century consumer, too. Burgess couldn’t find a place in Pickens to send a fax, so he put in a fax machine and printer.
The store has a little bit of a Starbuck’s feel to it, mixed in with the old-fashioned atmosphere. A couple of easy chairs by the big front window where people can relax and visit, or get online if they need to.
“That’s one of our themes – bringing the past and the present together,” Mark said.
It’s not all about merchandising for the Burgesses.
“Ultimately, we wanted to help people,” Mark said. “And the best way to help people is to get to know them.
“It’s building relationships. And I think a lot of people really miss that.”
There’s a signpost in the store that says, Mayberry RFD, 218 miles.
From the looks of things here, it may be a lot closer than that.
If you go
Burgess General Store
WHERE: 710 West Main St., Pickens
WHEN: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
INFO: (865) 934-9554, http://theburgessgeneralstore.com/