Store thrives on community spirit

Oella business serves as neighborhood hub for its faithful patrons

April 23, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In most neighborhoods, convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Royal Farms have replaced the general store of old.

Not in Oella.

In this tiny suburban enclave sandwiched between Catonsville and Ellicott City, the Country Corner Store thrives where children stop in for 2 cents candy and seniors linger on porch chairs every afternoon talking about politics or neighborhood goings-on.

"It really is like Mayberry," said Ed Varnauskas, who delivers Lance snacks to the store. "The same people are here all the time."

The store's community feel is credited to its owner, Jay Patel, who also is president of the Greater Oella Community Association. Whether it's putting on the annual Easter egg hunt or minding neighborhood kids until the school bus arrives, Patel serves as the neighborhood nucleus.

"He's the heartbeat of Oella," said Paul Mandl, who edits the community newsletter. "He knows everybody, and he can get them to do anything."

The small store at the crossroads of Oella and Westchester avenues has survived since 1910.

Patel, who took over the store in 1983, strives to maintain the traditional feel. He cashes checks, allows customers to buy food on credit, delivers to shut-ins and sells everything from hot dogs to hardware.

On a recent day, Patel pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and gave it to Robert Asbury, who had asked him to hold the money so he wouldn't spend it during the weekend.

"It's even a good bank," Asbury said of the store. "I'm 31 years old, and I've been coming here since I was 9. There's no place like it."

Patel takes particular pride in watching store kids like Asbury grow. He keeps a wall of store alumni photos over the cash register that include military pictures and graduation snapshots of the former tykes.

"Jay's cool," said 12-year-old Carmen Nibali, who stopped in on a recent day. "And he makes excellent food."

Patel took a circuitous route to find himself in the center of Oella. He was born in India, raised in Uganda and trained as a helicopter maintenance man. His wife, Paulomi, grew up in Baltimore, and after he married, he answered an ad to take over the store.

"I didn't know how to make a sandwich or do business," Patel said. "It took me a while."

Now patrons such as Howard Cooper can't see the store or Oella without Patel. Cooper, who operated the store two decades ago, is part of a regular crew of seniors known as "The Dukes of Leisure" who descend on the store every afternoon and listen to Big Band music.

"Jay's got all of Oella together," Cooper said. "And for us old guys, the store is the only place around."

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