Vital signs

Late on a Monday afternoon, I pull off the New Leicester Highway just a few yards from the Madison County line at Reeves Grocery, a brown block building with a pair of wooden benches out front.

But after a few minutes inside, the strains of banjo music and the small group of people clustered around the cash register give me the distinct sense that I’ve wandered into someone’s living room.

That impression isn’t too far from the truth.

Joshua Hodges, the 9-year-old grandson of proprietor Don Reeves, is practicing his plucking and strumming, to his family’s half-concealed delight. While his grandfather tends the cash register, grandmother Sandra Reeves listens from her chair in front of the soft-drink cooler. Joshua’s mother, Maxine, lingers nearby; his 7-year-old brother, Benjamin, dashes in and out.

Buoyed by the arrival of a new audience member, Don calls out the names of favorite tunes.

“Play ‘Cripple Creek,'” he urges, and his grandson happily obliges.

Depending on the song, the blue-eyed boy either breezes through the piece or carefully picks out the notes. Although Joshua handles the instrument well — he seems to be a natural performer — the banjo is nearly as big as he is. Joshua takes lessons in Asheville once a week and has even played a few songs at the Sandy Mush Community Center, his grandfather notes.

His grandmother asks for “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (from The Beverly Hillbillies TV show, she explains). After Joshua takes a couple of unsuccessful stabs at playing it from memory, the two begin thumbing through his sheet-music collection till they find it. Armed with the music, Joshua obliges.

A young woman in a print sundress comes in and asks for a pack of unfiltered Camels.

“Unfiltered,” she insists, when Don hands her the lower-octane model.

Later in the week, I stop by again for a longer chat with Don. The boys are away at Mount Carmel Baptist Church’s vacation Bible school, and the place has taken on a quieter mood. Their imprint still lingers, though: A badminton shuttlecock peeks out from under a table, a pair of baseball bats lean in a corner and a basketball and a couple of toy trucks wait at the end of the snack rack.

The country store does most of its business in snacks, sodas and bread, Don confirms, although he also stocks the obligatory drugstore items, canned goods and the like. An old Biltmore Dairy Farms clock keeps time.

It’s a pleasant enough place to pass the hours, as 83-year-old neighbor Wilma Boyd does most every morning. With longtime friend Don to keep her company, she watches the comings and goings from a wooden school desk positioned near the store’s impressive array of chewing-tobacco twists, snuff tins and assorted other tobacco products.

Customers trickle in — mostly men in the middle of their working day. Reeves Grocery doesn’t take credit cards, but Don pulls out a recipe box and writes a receipt for one man, revealing later that though he extends “some” store credit, he tries to avoid it.

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