Produce Stand Gets By On Proprietors, Stories

November 05, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Tyrone Johnson's place could have dropped from a Hansel & Gretel illustration, a jumbled fairy book structure of white stucco, apple green trim and a smoking chimney.

Little pots of violets wave on the porch of this roadside stand on Dorsey Road, next to wilted red geraniums, two wishing wells, and a clumsily made jack-o'-lantern.

A child carved that pumpkin, you think at first glance. In fact, the whole scene looks as if someone young and slightly disorganized drew up the plans -- and had a good time doing it. Wild roses droop over crates, victims of the chilly weather. Cornstalks lean in odd corners.

There's the house, an open produce building, and rows and rows of outdoor shelves. The staples are here -- pale piles of patty pan squash, stacks of Indian corn, crates of ruddy apples.

But it's not your typical roadside stand. Not only does Johnson carry more fruits and vegetables than a gourmet grocer, but customers can pick up live crabs, shrimp, stuffed toys, yard furniture, Eastern Shore jams and even a miniature carousel horse.

Family history pokes through at every corner, from the faded "Drink Coca Cola in bottles" ad in the window to the lawn, where for a half-century family weddings have taken place by the barbecue pit.

Cornelia Matthews, 78, remembers moving to the spot when she married at age 19, opening a penny store with her husband, Costell, and farming the 6 acres with a mule-pulled plow. Costell was also a traveling Methodist minister.

She sits inside the store -- now her home -- and watches the seasons change and the customers come and go at the roadside stand. She's always had a small fruit and flower stand, but her nephew Tyrone expanded the business into a large garden center four years ago.

Johnson, 37, a hearty man with a black beard, likes to chat with customers and groan about how much he hates autumn.

"It's a depressing time of year for me," he says. On a spring or summer day, 300 people shop at the stand. These fall days, it's often down to about 20.

"It's like this," he says, lifting his hands and letting them fall with a loud smack on the counter. "What can I do? There's nuthin' you can do."

But there's plenty to buy, although Johnson protests that he's understocked. For nippy weather he keeps cider and hot roasted peanuts on hand, along with the fall oranges: pumpkins, persimmons and sweet potatoes.

And whatever the weather, Johnson has stories.

He remembers the smell of meat roasting on the back lawn. He remembers dozens of relatives congregating for food and fun, and customers crowding in to buy the barbecue sandwiches. "You couldn't get on this place, there was so much business," he says.

Uncle Costell died of cancer 25 years ago. Aunt Cornelia -- known as "Granny"' -- closed the store but continues to help with the barbecue stand.

Says Johnson, "I remembered those barbecues, and I thought, 'If my uncle could draw all those people with a barbecue, what could I do with this?' " gesturing to the expansive produce.

He says he has managed to overcome the odds enough to break even. He started out with $500 in his pocket. This year the inventory topped $25,000. That first year he sold 700 flats of flowers (about 96 plants to each flat); this year customers bought up 4,000 flats.

The parking lot holds about 15 cars, but one day last summer, Johnson's cousin, Winston Matthews, who directs traffic during busy months at the stand, packed in 47 cars.

The lot draws customers from far and wide. One Texas couple, who met Granny at the stand, stop by to see her every time they're in Maryland.

Once, they sent her a plane ticket to visit them.

She sent it back. Granny's job is to help other people, not be helped, she says. Last year she lent her second house (built in the backyard) to a family on welfare. "I told them, they pay gas, electric and water, and we'd just go on like that," she says. The mother died recently, and Granny raised money in the community to bury her.

"It's a good community," she says. "I been here all these years and we've never had an argument. We do for each other."

She helped out her nephew by letting him start Johnson's Garden Center on her property, rent-free. Johnson likes to think he's holding the family together too, hiring his son, Mark, and three of his cousins. "Family: It always ties you to your roots," he says.

Granny remains one of the stand's biggest drawing cards, he admits. On busy days, she'll take a turn at the cash register, where she figures prices on pen and paper.

"She has customers coming back for 50 years, just to see her and buy something," Johnson says.

But he laments that growth hasn't put money in his pocket. "I'm buying stuff too, coolers and peanut warmers, and there's no money in the bank yet."

He pauses in his narration to help a customer pick out some pumpkins.

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