Lee's Has Been Lisbon's Nerve Center For 172 Years

Market Offers Modern Amenities, Traditional Flavor

August 18, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Despite what Columbians might tell you, Lisbon was the county's first planned community, surveyed by Caleb Pancoast into quarter-acre lots when Thomas Jefferson was president.

And Lisbon's 172-year-old precursor to Columbia's neighborhood centers is Lee's Market.

On the shelves at Lee's you'll find Fel's-Naptha Soap and flypaper. At the counter hot hamburgers and gossip are served up, not to mention iced tea made in a mayonnaise jar.

The market has always beena store and a meeting place for Lisbon residents and was a rest stopfor travelers on the Baltimore Pike before U.S. 40 (later Interstate70) was moved north of town in the 1950s.

Today it's proud to continue as the town's nerve center, a place to eat and meet or just pick up some neighborhood news with your carry-out order.

"If you've got a lost dog, you call in here. If you've got a road kill, you callin here. Everybody calls in," says Teresa Dana, 41, who has been a customer since 1976, when she came to watch the Super Bowl with a friend, liked it and stayed in Lisbon.

Owner Jody King made local newshimself this summer when he took out 6-foot grocery shelves and put in six new simulated-wood-grain Formica-covered tables and seats in the grocery store.

Now customers don't have to walk out with cross-hatch patterns on their behinds from sitting on milk crates, and Kingcan concentrate on making their breakfast and lunch.

At this Route 144 crossroads, dotted with old frame buildings and the town's abandoned hotel across the street, the big draw is the people.

Dot, for example.

Wearing her painter's cap, apron and jeans, Dorothy Gray is what makes Lee's hum.

A city girl who married a local dairy farmer, Gray serves as counselor and confessor for police, farmers, housewives and others who stop at Lee's for nourishment.

It was Dot Gray who set King up with the woman he married a year ago, and she seems to be in charge of customer relations as well.

It is Gray who relays the multitude of phoned-in messages from farmers to their hands, from parents to children, from

bosses to employees.

"I've got the steer in the small lot with the loading chute," was the messageshe was asked to pass to one customer last week.

There also is a clutter of notices -- from people selling farm machinery or looking for lost animals -- posted on a wall inside the doorway. Once inside Lee's you're likely to find at least one representative of the county,state or federal government eating lunch, drinking coffee or lappingup soft ice cream.

"On rainy days, this is the meeting place," Gray says. And 19-year-old Julie Stitely pipes in from behind the cash register in the front of the store: "In the wintertime it's crazy in here."

Under the ancient tongue-and-groove ceiling planks stands atall kerosene heater to attract customers in cold months, right nextto the Hershey's ice cream case to cool them off in the summer.

To this rustic meeting place is drawn an eclectic group of Lisbon residents, who in Gray's words, "solve all the world's problems, let me tell you."

The problem-solvers in uniform are some of Lee's best customers.

Donald E. Tracy, 54, the game warden for western Howard County for 23 years, is a fixture, especially during deer season.

Tracy persuaded King to register the store as a checking station for the state Department of Natural Resources. He now can weigh and tag game at a scale out back.

"You hear everything here from dirty jokesto art critiques," Tracy said, poking a finger toward Lisbon's "resident art critic," Postmaster David Yontz, who paints when he's not running Lisbon's post office.

Frequenting Lee's may be fun but it's also work county police Officer Donald W. Bathgate.

"I've got to go into all these places," he says, to keep track of what's going on in a community. And when he has to find someone, Lee's is a good placeto look.

"It seems like sooner or later, everyone in the western end of the county is going to be here once or twice in the week."

A local history book says that the store, with living quarters above it, was built about 1819 on a $750 lot on Madison Street, named for the president who had left office two years before.

Lee Sirk, for whom the market is named, inherited the business from his father, Jessie Sirk, who bought the store in 1949. Lee Sirk sold the business to King in 1981 and went into retirement in a house behind the store.

Although he doesn't know exactly how old his place is, King has found receipts in the attic dating back 100 years.

That's not to say Lee's is rooted entirely in the past.

The seats popular for propping of feet were added as part of a $20,000 investment King made in thebusiness earlier this year. His improvements also included yellow vinyl siding outside. And Lee's bakes pizzas for takeout.

Earlier this year, however, he abandoned a two-year effort to rent videos when he decided they weren't worth the space they occupied. And competing with modern grocery stores, like 3-year-old George's Super Thrift on Route 94, was a losing proposition.

He disposed of a backlog of slow moving stock -- "sprinklers, swing seats, paint rollers and mop heads that I don't think anybody had the mop for anymore."

King sayshe also used to offer steaks, chicken and seafood but

has since cut that down to only hamburger in his deli case and an assortment of packaged meats and cheeses.

An east wall of the store is lined with soda pop bottles. Other crannies boast just a few boxes of cornstarch or bottles of motor oil.

Lee's may have cut quantity, but it's big on variety, King notes.

"I feel comfortable with the directionI'm heading in," he says.

Although he cut back on his inventory, King is investing space in a more valuable asset: people.

"If you're ever in a bad mood, just come in here and there's always somebody in there that can cheer you up," says Dana.

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