Ed Grisamore

Gris: Eulogy for a corner store

YATESVILLE -- The shelves will soon be empty at Mulling Grocery, the doors locked and the windows dark.

On Saturday morning, the auctioneer’s voice will echo across the wooden floors. Everything will be sold in lots, from fan belts to cans of Spam.

Mulling has been the heartbeat of this community for the past 68 years. Now that heart has stopped beating.

Six weeks ago, Billy Lee came in the store to find some bolts on the hardware aisle. Vance Mulling rang up the sale and closed the cash register drawer for the final time.

When institutions like Mulling Grocery go out of business, it is not just another vacant storefront in small-town America.

Folks have to fight to hold back tears.

This was a corner store where you could get fresh-cut meat from the butcher counter. It was one-stop shopping for everything from wash tubs to fishing poles to “white dirt” (kaolin) and thermal underwear.

It was the spot where men gathered each morning to drink coffee, swap stories and solve the problems of the world before 8 a.m. They would talk about politics and football, and had spirited debates over whose rain gauge had collected the most water.

“It was the hub of everything,” said Vance’s wife, Debra.

Whenever the electricity went out, folks would call to find out when the power would be restored, as if Vance knew. If they heard a siren in the distance, they figured he would know about that, too, since he was a volunteer fireman. Often, he had to lock up and rush to put out a grass fire by himself until others could get there to help him.

There were nights when he would leave his supper on the table to open the store for someone with a sick baby or in need of a part to repair a busted pipe.

Mulling Grocery took a hit when the Wal-Mart opened in Thomaston. After a Dollar General moved to the edge of town a few years ago, Mulling Grocery hung on for as long as it could.

But it was like so many other mom-and-pop-sister-brother stores, a victim of the times and a casualty of a vanishing retail landscape. After the economy went south -- like Ga. 74 as it bends toward Culloden -- the Mullings finally waved the white flag.

Vance is 61 years old and has started a new job in grounds maintenance with the Upson County Board of Education. The grocery store has been the only job he has ever held. He has been stocking shelves and taking out the trash since he was 6.

His father, T.J. Mulling, opened the first store across the road in 1946, back when the town had a doctor, dentist and even a movie theater. He later moved into an abandoned building about the time Vance was born in 1953. The floor was rotted, so he hammered down the wooden planks still there today.

Vance has worked full-time since he graduated from Yatesville High School, carrying on the family business with his mother, Bobbie, and sister, Vickie, after his father died in 1980.

T.J. bought the first television in Yatesville, and people would come from miles around to watch it in the back room of his store. At night, he would carry it home with him.

He was among the most caring souls in this community of 350 people. If someone was down on their luck, struggling to put food on the table, they would find the outstretched hand of T.J. Mulling.

“I never heard an unkind word about him,” said Debra. “He helped everybody. He had a heart bigger than the store. Vance is just like his daddy. Whatever anybody needed, he has made sure they got it.”

During its heyday, Mulling Grocery was a wall-to-wall mart before there was a Wal-Mart. In the long shadow of the water tower, the store sold gas and tires, yard tools, mineral spirits and even delivered groceries. At one time, chickens were kept out back, and you could pick out the one you want to fry for your Sunday dinner.

If Mulling didn’t have it, chances are you didn’t need it.

At Christmas, there would be toys and cases of fruit stacked to the ceiling. Vance would often hurry to open the store on Christmas morning for fathers who forgot batteries and grandmothers who needed a pie crust.

Until a few years ago, the store did not have a credit card machine. Everything purchased on credit was written down, and folks would pay their bills at the end of the month.

Before he opened the doors at 7 a.m. every morning, Vance would make a round trip to Barnesville to pick up homemade biscuits. He would come back, put on the coffee pot and the day would officially begin at Mulling.

Saturday morning will have a different beginning.

Boxes and trays will be sold to the highest bidder.

After the last item is carried away, Vance Mulling will turn out the lights.

An entire town will pay its respects.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.