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Family ties revive historic Country Store as vital part of rural area

COUNTY LINE CORNERS – For nearly 150 years, people have come through the doors of the Country Store, on Route 18 just east of Countyline Road, to buy food, fuel and other necessities.

In its long existence, the store has doubled back on its own history not once but twice, by changing hands along what current co-owner Bruce Spencer, nephew of a previous owner, calls "a nephew track."

From 1944 to 1966, the store was owned and operated by William and Bertha Herman. In 1966, they sold it to Bertha Herman's nephew, LaVerne Lartz and his wife, Marilyn.

In 1985, LaVerne and Marilyn Lartz sold the store out of the family, and it changed hands a few times before closing in 2013.

Then one day in the spring of 2015, Marilyn Lartz's nephews, Bruce and Brian Spencer, both of Lockport, were on their way to visit their aunt when they noticed that the store was closed and for sale.

"Bruce and I always thought that it would be nice to be in business with each other," said Brian Spencer, who occasionally visited the store as a youngster along with Bruce, his twin, and other relatives. "One day we went by the store and it was for sale, and I said, 'Well, we won't know if we don't try it.' "

Lartz was delighted at the opportunity to have the store back in the family and get back behind the counter again.

The Spencers each had careers in banking, but also had some experience in retail, with Bruce working for 10 years at a supermarket and Brian working for Kwik Fill. The twins closed on the store in January of 2016 and re-opened it just before Memorial Day.

"When we put the things on the shelves for this store, we want it to be everything we need to run our house with, and what my grandmother would have put on the shopping list for my grandfather," said Bruce Spencer.

Much remains the same about the cozy 2 1/2-story, wood frame store with the deep front porch. The Spencers have traced the store's ownership back to Ray and Ona Downey, who operated it from 1920 to 1944.  But it may have opened as early as 1870. A newspaper article in  1974, when the store suffered a devastating fire, said it had been built by W.H. Garland at County Line Corners "nearly a century ago."

In this photo from 1914, Gus and Florence Foss and Ethel Gifford pose near a car in front of the Country Store, which had been an established business for more than 40 years already. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

And a story from the Medina Tribune of 1872, praising County Line Corners as one of "a plentiful sprinking of small villages" around Lyndonville, named "the store of Wm. Corrigal" as the hamlet's "chief place of business."

In the store "all the necessities and luxuries of life are always to be found," said the article. It was "where the people congregate when the toils of the day are ended, especially on Tuesday and Friday evenings, when the agent of Uncle Sam comes around with the mail bag. Its principal productions are barrels and butter tubs, wagons and horse-shoes. The chief articles of barter are butter and eggs, boots and shoes, tea, coffee and chewing gum."

It's been a while since horse-shoes – or shoes of any kind – were sold at the Country Store, but a couple of vintage barrels evoke its past. An old china cabinet in a nook holds reading material, and a wire crate containing glass bottles is propped atop a shelf.

The store offers fresh-popped popcorn and live bait in the summer, Christmas decorations in season, and kitchen utensils, gasoline, beer, ice and grocery items year-round.

The huge commercial kitchen also enables the Country Store to turn out fresh-baked doughnuts, cookies and cinnamon rolls daily, as well as operate a deli and cook fish fries on Friday afternoons and a meatloaf dinner every Saturday from 2 to 7 p.m.

Some things are new: An ATM was just installed, and a rack of lemon berry acai Stubborn Soda would probably raise the eyebrows of the old-time proprietors.

One thing that hasn't changed is the presence of Marilyn Lartz, who turns 86 this month and is still going strong, making her specialty potato, macaroni and crab salads, and coleslaw, which goes with the Friday fish fries.

Marilyn Lartz, widely known as "Aunt Marilyn," wipes down the coffee machine at the Country Store, which she and her husband owned and operated from 1966 to 1985, and is now owned by her nephews. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"She has me trained to make those when she's not here," said Bruce Spencer, "and I could probably do them myself, but the philosophy is, if it's not broke, don't fix it."

"I just make the salads and throw this and that in, I don't measure or anything, it's just like I do it at home," Lartz said.

When her nephews reopened the store, said Lartz, "It was just like old times."

"Old-time customers come in and recognize Aunt Marilyn," said Bruce Spencer. "We've referred to her as Aunt Marilyn for so long that now all the customers, who used to call her just Marilyn, they call her Aunt Marilyn, too.

"An older guy came in and told me he was out somewhere and somebody said, 'I went down to the Country Store and I got Aunt Marilyn's salads.' So he said, 'I didn't know she was related to you!" and the man said, 'She's not related to me, that's what everybody calls her!'"

"These guys have done the best of anyone who has ever operated it," said Tim McCullough of Carlton, a town in Orleans County. "I've been a customer ever since they opened it. The pizza is great, and so is the deli."

In order to incorporate, the Spencers had to come up with an original name, so on paper it's Spencer's Country Store. But they have no intention of changing the sign or the official name of the store.

A history buff, Bruce Spencer has compiled a thick notebook of clippings and photos from the store's past, including photos documenting a serious fire in 1974 that was started by a faulty electric heater in the second-floor apartment.

"The fire really devastated the upstairs," said Bruce Spencer. "My mother and father brought us over and all I can remember is that everything was black upstairs. The building was saved due to the diligence of the firefighters."

While the firefighters were extinguishing the blaze on the second floor, the family was working downstairs to cover the merchandise, according to news reports of the time. "You'd never see that today," said Bruce Spencer.

The Spencers have enlarged and posted several vintage photos showing the store through the years. Applications for beer licenses required interior photos, so they can look back at a photo of Ray Downey standing between a gleaming pot-bellied stove and an ornate cash register in 1925. A photo from 1967 shows the store's original wooden double front doors, and cardboard cartons of Diet Pepsi and 7-Up.

The extension that houses the wall of coolers was added between 1985 and 2003, when the store was operated by Steve and Carol Schreiner.

In the old photos, "If you look in the store window, they even had dresses on display," said Bruce Spencer, "and there was a wood floor in here. One of these days, we're going to go back to the wood floor, but there are so many other things we needed to address first." The Spencers did replace the wood ceiling in the main part of the store.

Steven Tuttle of Sanzo Beverage makes a beer delivery to the Country Store through a thick wooden door that may be original to the store. "Everybody who comes down here falls in love with that door," said Bruce Spencer, who cleaned it after the brothers bought the building. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A thick wooden door leads into the cooler. "We don't know whether that was the original cooler door or not, some say yes and some say no," said Bruce Spencer. "But everybody who comes down here falls in love with that door."

It was speckled with paint when they took over the store, and Bruce removed all the little dots, washed and polished the door. "One day my brother was going by and he said, 'Are you going steady with that door?'" Bruce said, laughing. "I said, 'I'm probably going to marry it when I get the other side clean.' "

The Spencers have developed a loyal client base among local residents, including workers from neighboring farms and tourists who visit the camps and parks along the lake.

A portrait of John F. Kennedy and an old scale add to the atmosphere at the nearly 150-year-old Country Store. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

They are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, to sell meat and the charcoal to cook it, kitchen utensils to flip it on the grill, beer and the coolers and ice to keep it cold, birthday cakes, cards and candles, extension cords, paper towels, cleaning products, kitty litter, onions, potatoes and garlic bulbs, cough syrup, cotton balls, sunglasses and bird seed. Their staff includes Edward Fura, Bruce's roommate of 30 years; the twins' sister, Barbara Lamont; and Brian Spencer's daughter, Lauren Spencer, as well as several part-timers.

At Easter time, Bruce Spencer makes potato and sauerkraut pierogis from scratch, using Fura's mother's family recipe. "Ed's mother was Polish, and she taught me to do that," he said. "That's the kind of thing that keeps people coming back."

Bruce and Brian Spencer's mother Shirley, Aunt Marilyn's sister, comes to visit sometimes. "She sits and watches at the table," said Bruce Spencer. "Aunt Marilyn has tried to get her in the kitchen – she even had an apron on her one week – but my mother raised five kids, and she's done with all that."

The deli at the Country Store offers Aunt Marilyn's special salads. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Their first year, business at the Country Store was slow as people grew accustomed to their presence. Then on March 8, 2017, as the Spencers were preparing for their second summer, a windstorm knocked down trees and power lines, leaving most people without power. For some parts of the town of Yates, power was out for days.

The Country Store got its power back relatively quickly and was the only source for gasoline and hot food for miles around, said Bruce Spencer.

"A guy came in and said, 'I saw your lights on and I couldn't believe it! Do you really have gas?'" said Bruce Spencer.

"We were so busy making food," he said. "People would come in and get their food and get gas to run their generators, so we really kept them in their homes. It was one of those things that gave you a good feeling, because you knew you were helping people."

The store had power but no phone service, so they had no way to process credit card payments. The brothers decided to sell food, gas and other supplies anyway. "Our customers came in, and we were relatively new here, they were relatively new to us, but we made them promise they were coming back, and we did it that way," said Bruce Spencer.

"We would do a register slip and just have them initial it, and then they would come back to pay their bill. We gave them the credit to get them through that time period."

When power was restored, every single person returned to pay what they owed, he said.

"They were the only gas station up until the 11th that had any fuel whatsoever, whether kerosene or gasoline," said Mayor John Belson of Lyndonville. "And they were very gracious because the credit card machine didn't work, so they were doing it all by hand, and if you didn't have the money you came back and paid them when you got it."

When Belson heard that the Country Store, was open, he said, "I went over and filled my vehicles up, and I came back and shared the information that anybody who needed gas could go the Country Store, because they had gas and they would take a credit slip if you didn't have the money.

"It was one of those things that you never want to have happen, but when it did happen, everybody worked together, and they were a huge part of it."

Brain Spencer said he never expected to own a store, much less the one his aunt and uncle once operated.

"I never thought I would wind up operating the Country Store, absolutely not," said Brian Spencer. "But I love it here. It's been nice and the people have been nice, too. I don't miss spending a day anywhere else."


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