HELMSBURG — The Helmsburg General Store is at a crossroads.
Sitting at Helmsburg Road and State Road 45 for more than a century, the little store with its coffee, smokes and other daily necessities is a junction in time and in the lives of those who pass through its door.
Now the store itself is at a crossroads in its life, as the current owner has put it up for sale.
Over the windows where the sometimes-lit “open” sign hangs, photographs depict scenes from the 1930s, when the original log store was replaced with a brick one.
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On a wall near the back — the whole store can be taken in with a quick spin around — a painting by local artist Diane Bledsoe shows the store in the 1980s, with motorcycle riders stopping in on a summer afternoon.
A slightly askew metal shelf on the back wall is filled with “free books,” as the note taped to one corner indicates.
Owner Karen Sooy said the books are to take, not just to loan out. They are the remnants of a collection someone left, and Sooy does her best to redistribute them to tourists who move through and need something to pass the evenings in their seasonal rentals.
But in the cold months, out-of-towners don’t stop in very often.
In the cold times
Sooy doesn’t open the store much in the late winter.
Business isn’t as good when there aren’t summer folks looking for bait and fishing licenses or hunters checking in with their haul. But she’ll be the first to tell you that, nearing retirement age, she doesn’t like to come in much on the cold mornings herself.
“People know me by now: If it says it’s going to be 18 degrees on Tuesday, I’ll be sitting in front of my fireplace,” she said.
Yet, when Sooy opened for a few hours one Saturday morning in late January, the place did not take long to come alive.
Marilyn Burkhart stopped in to chat and pick up a few items for the week. She has known Sooy at least since Sooy bought the store.
“For 25 years, I’ve known her,” Burkhart said.
“Twenty-six,” Sooy corrected from across the room.
That’s a lot of years to share secrets over the store’s counter, and the two alluded to having a few on each other. Before Burkhart could respond as to “where all the bodies are buried,” Sooy piped in: “I’ve got 420 acres; no one will ever know.”
Burkhart stops in for things such as ice cream, snacks and “always coffee.” Like many of Sooy’s regular customers, though, she also stops in just to visit.
“Summertime, sitting outside,” Burkhart reminisced, before turning to Sooy: “They took a picture outside, four or five men, sitting outside, remember?”
“Hell no,” Sooy responded, looking around to see if she could find the photo.
“If someone passed away, there’d be some announcement here,” Burkhart said. “Just pass the news, leave messages — directions.”
“We give good directions and bad advice,” Sooy added.
“One of the first things you learn in Brown County, no one visits people’s houses,” Burkhart said. “This, this is a meeting place. Everyone’s comfortable here.”
When the store is open in the early morning, a regular group of locals stop in for coffee and conversation. The men from Bill Pool’s Sawmill across the road come over first thing or on their breaks.
Pudge Weddle, from the sawmill, walked in that Saturday. He has lived his entire life in Helmsburg and has seen many a gathering at the store.
“In here on the bench in the wintertime and out on the picnic table in the summer,” he said. “What you up to? What are you plannin’? Whatta ya got goin’ on?”
The door opened, and Pool himself walked in with his ever-present smile.
Sooy offered, “Poor Mr. Pool.”
“Whatta ya mean ‘Poor Mr. Pool’?” he responded. “I’m havin’ a blast.”
Sooy has Pool’s favorite brand of nuts ready for him by the time he reaches the counter.
The regular spot
The store in the summer is a must-stop place for both locals and out-of-towners — or “summer-timers,” as Burkhart calls them.
Sooy remembered when the Bean Blossom Boogie had the streets of Helmsburg lined with bikes and she made $10,000 in two days.
“That killed us when they moved the Boogie,” she said. “It was fun. It was a lot of fun.”
The event brought in repeat visitors from around the country: “People you’d remember from last year, the year before, and the ones you wanted to remember,” she said.
“And the ones you didn’t want to remember,” Pool added.
“Well, there’s always been a few,” Sooy responded. “I have a few regulars like that, too.”
Sooy has a “Wall of Fame or Shame” down the side of the beverage cooler, with pictures of fishermen holding up catfish more than half as long as they are tall.
She points proudly to the picture of a one-pound morel a group she was leading found while mushroom hunting.
Bait sales bring in customers in the summer. A sign beneath the counter reminds customers that “Karen has worms.” Sooy’s sister gave it to her for Christmas one year.
“My twin sister, ‘Kitty’; Kitty’s got a sense of humor,” Sooy said. “She had it de-luxe made.”
Sooy has a refrigerator in the back for the worms and plenty of beer and wine to meet the needs of summer residents.
She said she enjoys meeting all the people who pass through — the ones she’s meeting for the first time and the ones she’s meeting all over again.
“You know, I like our tourists,” Sooy said.
After 26 years, Sooy is ready to retire from running the store and has put it up for sale.
New technologies are making the business more complicated, with things she has to file online and keep track of that she never had to before.
“I don’t even have a computer,” she said.
She has enjoyed being able to run a business close to her home, she said.
In 1988, she said, buying the store seemed like a good idea, and for the most part it has been.
“I come down here and either be nice to people or be mean to people. It depends on the mood I’m in that day,” she said.
Sooy laughed, then took a quiet look around the store.
“Nah, it’s been a good run,” she said.