Store offers bread, milk, community

Still Pond Market is more than just a business -- it's the soul of a town

Maryland Journal


STILL POND -- Larry Penn counts out his serenity in small-town change.

In the course of a crisp fall morning at the Still Pond Market - the two-story Victorian-era mercantile he bought 15 years ago - Penn casually tallies the coffee and cigarettes, sodas, Lance crackers and Twinkies.

Bagging a "breakfast" hot dog for a customer with an iron constitution, he pauses to admire a neighbor's new shotgun. Penn punches the buttons to set the gasoline pump outside for a quick $5 sale, and breaks a $20 bill for a second-grader who needs "all ones, please."

If this little crossroads out in the sticks of the Eastern Shore had a town hall, it would be this market. If it had a mayor, it would surely be the low-key proprietor behind the counter.

Penn, 62, could easily claim multiple titles - town gossip columnist (he hears it all), counselor, confessor and confidant. All of them and more.

In fact, add card shark to the list. It's a half-serious moniker verified by a handful of customers who routinely lose the penny poker hands Penn deals on a worn wooden countertop next to the cash register.

"The thing about this business is that you've just got to be around all the time," Penn says. "You go along, and sometimes you almost forget the years going by. But we enjoy being around all these people."

Penn, a native of Missouri, moved from Bowie to the Shore in 1971. He opens every morning at 6. Stocked full with everything from bread and milk to shotgun shells, cleaning products to pickled pigs' feet and Slim Jims, the store enables him to ring up a good living, a bit at a time.

The deli subs, soup and hamburgers usually draw a sizable crowd around lunchtime, a combination of locals and work crews in the area.

Sitting in the middle of the hamlet about 10 miles from Chestertown, at Still Pond Road and Main Street, the market has the prime commercial spot.

The location has made the general store the busiest place in town since at least 1870, the earliest date Penn could verify through a title search. An old patent medicine bottle he found under the building dates to 1854.

In a small corner of the building, separated by a partition, is the post office that serves 120 box holders and 60 customers on a rural route. About 10 years ago, the postal service threatened to close the place, but residents would have none of it.

"This is where anybody who wants to know anything has to stop and come in," says Postmaster Joyce Manley. "They tell you the story of their families, all the births, deaths, marriages. We know their children and grandchildren."

Penn's wife, Gerry, usually works a midday shift. She says part of her contribution is photographing regular customers (which would be just about everybody in the town of 125) and pasting their snapshots in a big collage on one side of an upright drink cooler.

"People actually get mad if they can't find their picture on there," Gerry says. "And they want a new one every year or so. We have a lot of fun with it."

The couple will keep a running tab for trustworthy regulars who are miles away from the nearest ATM so they don't have to worry about paying in cash. Their weekly totals are tallied and stashed in a notebook on the counter

Working early, Larry Penn is usually brewing the third pot of coffee before 8 o'clock, strong black stuff that customers sip from white foam cups. Those without a commute to jobs in Chestertown, Baltimore, Washington or Delaware can sit a while in three mismatched chairs.

Longtime customer Ron Roark stops by on his way to work, anxious to show off the Remington shotgun he bought the night before for $200 - "a steal," Penn says, offering $350 on the spot.

Penn is an avid hunter whose trophies from deer and turkey hunts hang from the walls in the store - banished by Gerry from the nearby farmhouse where they live on an 80-acre spread.

Penn has loads of collectibles hanging everywhere - baseball memorabilia, newspaper clippings, photos of Still Pond and Betterton, the old bay resort town three miles down the road.

In the back storage room, Penn discovered a roll of newspaper advertising fliers with the weekend specials from June 16 to 19, 1943. With World War II in full bore, evaporated milk was 11 cents a can, cornflakes 10 cents a box.

There's always plenty of good-natured joshing that goes on among the locals. Mike Otwell, a recently retired airport firefighter, complained so much about losing a new pair of sneakers on a cruise ship vacation that Gerry set up a spare change cup, labeled "Buy Mike Otwell a Pair of Walking Shoes."

History means a lot in this town, which doesn't look much different than it did 100 years ago. Still Pond's claim to fame is that it was the first place in Maryland where women were allowed to vote - a dozen years before the 19th Amendment was passed.

The oldest building in town, across the street from the store, is owned by house painter Michael Brunner, who moved from Boston four years ago.

In the middle of a renovation, Brunner says portions of the house date to the late 1700s. In a newer addition, he uncovered the name of a carpenter, Thomas Hebron, who signed a piece of interior wood in chalk in 1844.

Except for the occasional blast from the siren that calls Betterton fire company volunteers, not much ruffles the pace of things in Still Pond, which takes its name from a nearby body of water.

Brunner says one recent worry is about the traffic that could come through town if a couple of development proposals in Betterton come to fruition.

"The store really makes this place, with the post office next door," Brunner says. "You can pick up your mail, talk to your neighbors, hang out in the store. If you were born here, you stayed for this. And it's what I came here looking for."

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