At this store it's not shoes -- it's the news

Scottie's in Chestertown is more than a sole provider. It's the town's heart.

November 11, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CHESTERTOWN -- It's 6 a.m. when the parade of regulars begins lining up at Scottie's Shoe Store. Clutching coffee cups, they come looking for their daily news fix ---- that and all the wisdom, wit and gossip that shopkeeper Anna Scott Cole can muster.

Shoes are optional.

"Miss Anna," as she's known by everybody in this Colonial-era town, isn't just the proprietor of a footwear business. She sells newspapers - just about all of them. She doesn't provide the caffeine, but she's strategically located at the center of the historic business district between two java joints.

For her customers, the day starts the old-fashioned way, with ink on paper: The Sun, The Washington Post, the Wilmington News-Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and stacks of local newspapers that chronicle the small-town life of the upper Eastern Shore.

The big day this week was not Tuesday, Election Day, but the day after. Customers crammed the store to find out the latest vote tallies, particularly in county commissioner and other local races. Sales have been up all week as readers focused on politics, but Cole routinely sells 400 or more papers a day and as many as 1,000 on Sundays.

Most folks could easily sign up for home delivery, at least for regional and local papers, or check the headlines online at home. But that's not really the point, says Lanetta W. Parks, a retired school librarian who owns an upscale bookstore two doors down from Cole.

"She is the heart of this town," says Parks, a transplant who arrived from Baltimore 35 years ago. "She is open every single day of the year - even for a few hours on Christmas morning and Thanksgiving. For people, and there are a lot of newcomers, who have only one connection to this town, it's usually Anna."

Cole, who people assume is nearing 80 though she won't say, keeps impossible hours. Her days begin at 3:15 a.m. so she can get to the store to meet newspaper distributors who help her unload the bundles.

She busies herself for a couple of hours, sorting papers and setting aside editions for people who pay in advance by the week or month, all displayed neatly with each customer's name in blue ink - the "reserves," she calls them.

The early birds - usually commuters who like to shoot the breeze before driving west to jobs across the Bay Bridge or north to Wilmington or even suburban Philadelphia - arrive as Cole opens the door.

From that pre-dawn ritual, she rarely leaves the place until she locks up at 5:30 p.m. That's the schedule, 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. six days a week - Sundays from 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Her usual spot is behind a counter, half-hidden by displays of snack crackers and chips, along with jars full of penny candy that draw schoolchildren in the afternoons. She has favorites some customers remember from childhood. Who knew they still made Squirrel Nuts, Bulls Eyes and Mary Janes?

It's been this way for 32 years, and Cole sees little reason to change.

"I have no children, just two sisters, nieces and nephews. What in the world would I do with myself if I retired?" Cole says. "I'm not retiring unless they carry me out of here, and I've thought maybe they would have to do that a couple times lately."

Cole has taken what she refers to as "vacation" - three hospital stays in 14 months for a stubborn infection in her leg. Her two sisters, who live nearby, and a nephew kept the store going while Cole was laid up. Now, on doctor's orders, she uses a cane to get around.

As the town's "honorary" mayor, Cole gets at least one perk. Police Chief Walter T. Coryall sees to it that Cole always has a parking spot right in front of her store. Parking is sometimes at a premium as tourists and residents are drawn to trendy shops in the restored downtown.

Jim Flanagan is a relative newcomer drawn four years ago to the town of about 5,000, and he has become a regular at Scottie's. So has his yellow Labrador, Zoe, who makes a beeline straight to Cole every morning to get dog treats she keeps behind the counter.

"Scottie's really is the crossroads of the town," says Flanagan, 63, a retired executive with a digital equipment company. "It's like a time warp here. It's not 2006. It's wonderful."

A Kent County native who grew up in Worton, a farm community outside the county seat, Cole has been widowed twice, losing both spouses to heart problems. Her first husband, Howard Scott, provided the name for the shop.

Cole adamantly refuses to reveal her age. She graduated from high school in Chestertown, but she won't say which year.

Cole's longtime friend, Ruth Briscoe, a retired school bus driver, spends many hours sitting in the store, keeping Cole company during slow periods late in the afternoons. The pair often eat lunch together. Briscoe can't understand why Cole is so secretive about her age.

"Anna won't tell anybody how old she is," Briscoe says. "I don't mind telling I'm 78, and I'm glad the Lord has let me live this long."

Over the years, shoes have become a smaller part of the business that now includes consignment items. Cole still carries a small assortment of footwear, including men's work boots and children's rain boots. But it is the newsstand that keeps people coming to her store.

"I'm satisfied. My customers are my friends and my family," Cole said. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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