When You Walk Through the Doors of the Shelby Forest General Store
When you walk through the doors of the Shelby Forest General Store, you’ll see Doug and Kristin Ammons. They’re the owners of this small piece of “Heaven on Earth.” You’ll see wooden floors, uneven and creaky; shelves of merchandise, a kitchen, bar stools, booths, and a front porch where the neighborhood can get together.
To those who walk through its doors, it's like going back home.
If you ask Doug for the long answer on how the general store got started, he’ll reply it was “...forged in the bowels of the Great Depression, at a time of national hopelessness and despair.” The short answer is 1934. The amount of knowledge he has on the store is immense. Doug can tell you about the effects the Dust Bowl had on this area and how it lead to the creation of the store.
It’s clear that the Ammons love the store just by speaking with them. They’re part of the character that makes the Shelby Forest General Store so unique. That being said, they don’t want to steal the store’s magic, “Our role is to preserve, present, and share the store. We acknowledge being apart of the fabric of the store but are most uncomfortable taking credit for the magic that’s here. We are not the star of the show.”
The genesis of the Shelby Forest General Store is similar, in some ways, to many of the general stores that sprang up across the United States in the Depression era. People tend to meet where roads cross. Once upon a time, going into town was an event. People would meet each other on the road and stop to chat. Eventually, if it happened in the same spot enough times, an enterprising person would start a general store.
Dixie and Emmet Jeter did just that in 1934, creating a place where fieldhands could purchase their dry goods and meet-up with their neighbors. They only got paid twice a year during the Spring planting season and during the Fall harvest season. Mrs. Jeter would carry the accounts until the hands could settle their debts.
The Jeter’s lived in the back of the Shelby Forest General Store. Doug described the living space as being from the counter, where the kitchen sits, to the wall, where the booths are. It was not a very big space for the Jeter family to live in; only two rooms, “But back then, that’s just the way it was,” Doug explained.
Mrs. Dixie Jeter and Doug would have long phone conversations about the history of the store. Her memory was surprisingly clear and thorough, although her recollections during the war years (WWII) were admittedly foggy. She died at 102 years old, but not before sharing delightful stories and memories about the store’s early years with Doug.
Before owning the store in 2003, Doug wore a suit and tie as a Memphis businessman. He had a client who lived in Shelby Forest and he wanted to show Doug his new barn. That visit landed him at the doors of the Shelby Forest General Store for a burger lunch. A year later, he heard the store was for sale. After some investigating, the Ammons were convinced that the store was indeed a “diamond in the rough.” He purchased the store in 2003 from its previous owners. He now wears cargo shorts and flip-flops to work.
Doug and Kristin know the store feels like home to their customers. “It was all about community—loving one another. It’s not about selling things, that’s an afterthought. If you're going to build a place and have running water, electricity and have to pay for it, then you’ve got to have the revenue stream to subsidize the shelter these people are meeting at.”
When asked what drives people, such as tourists, to the Shelby Forest General Store, Doug had quite the answer. “It’s because of its location. The park has so much to offer and is so used, that we’ve met so many wonderful people that end up becoming customers. It’s all about that saying, ‘location, location, location.’” Doug smiled and gestured around at everything around him, “You would not believe the variety of visitors from all over the world that are in this store on a weekly basis. It’s phenomenal! Last week alone travelers from Australia, Scotland, Venezuela, and China came through the store in one week and they were not even traveling together! If you go back 120 years ago, 90% of the people in America never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born. 90%! Let that soak in, that’s crazy! 50 miles? That’s just over halfway to Jackson (Tennessee), and now you're looking at the highways—you’ve got Henry Ford, the Model T, transportation—leave the Wright Brothers out of it. We’re just talking about transportation. And then the Airstream trailers in the 50s after World War II, the Greatest Generation—the biggest surge of growth in the economy and the population. Let’s not forget about Ladybird Johnson and her Highway Beautification Act of the 60s, This perfect storm of converging factors of camping and highway traveling developing into a massive industry. All these people were on these brand new roads, with their brand new cars and their brand new families.”
Doug went on to tell us just how the travel expansion of the mid-twentieth century, still effects tourism and travel today, “There was something called a roadside attraction,” along the major highways and byways of the United States, “and that’s where you would stop and pet a lizard or look at the baby alligators, whatever it was. You’ve got all these things emerging and creating revenue all up and down the road. (Can you remember Stuckey’s?) Because of the park, there is so much traffic and it has been like that for a long, long time. And now it’s changed because there is another road in addition to that stretch of pavement. That new road is the Internet with its’ global distribution. In a mere second you can be chatting with somebody anywhere in the world. We get these bloggers in here and they’ll do a write-up and record what we’re saying and write a piece and put it out there. That’s one of the ways we get people in that aren’t from around here.” Kristin later added that “We have people that literally drive out here just for us. We have some people that say they came here and didn’t know there was a park and yet we have some people that come for the park and then they find us.” There is no question that their evolving social media and internet presence works very effectively as a welcome addition to the traditional highways leading to the store. Check out their website www.shelbyforestgeneralstore.com
Tourists aren’t the only people that come in. While interviewing Doug and Kristin, lots of locals stopped by while we were there for the first interview. “People feel connected with this store. It’s their store, it’s not our store.” Each person that comes through has their own story, and they all agree that the Shelby Forest General Store is something special; it’s “old-school-cool.” A man named Eddie came by to talk for a second when Doug had to handle something at the counter. He asked why we were there and kept mentioning how much he thought of the store, “This is a good place. I’m not just saying that just because Kristin is a great cook. She’s always chatting and just reminds me of family that I have up in Virginia. This is a great place.”
During the time the Ammons have owned the store, they’ve evolved, “15-16 years ago, Kristin was running back and forth taking the kids to school and then going back to pick them up. We were open later until 7 or 8 at night every day.” Doug was running himself ragged; it took him a few years to realize that such long hours were unnecessary. “The bottom line is, back then we were open at 6:00 am seven days a week. We’re closed Thanksgiving and we’re closed Christmas.” Running the store was a family affair. Both of their daughters would be in the store after school, working. When they graduated high school, four years apart, both daughters gave speeches their Senior year about the store and “the life lessons they had learned growing up working in the store and the people skills that they had developed and the tools that will serve them for the rest of their lives.” Doug and Kristin’s hours are a little more reasonable nowadays, the doors still open at 6 o’clock every morning, but Monday thru Thursday they close up shop at 2 pm. Steak nights are from 6 to 8 Friday nights. They close at 4 on Saturdays and Sundays. The store is open seven days a week and they’re closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Kristin does, “a little of everything,” in the store alongside Doug. They take turns with different aspects, “When it’s mom and pop, you’ve got to be willing to do a little of all and be all in.” One of her favorite things to do in the store is to introduce people to each other and get to know the people who come in the store. “I hope that people feel drawn to come here and find it as a haven. I hope that when they leave that they didn’t just get something to eat or drink but that they had an experience and that it was a positive one. And then, one day, when they’re just sitting there and they want that feeling again that they’ll come back. We know that there are a billion places to go and eat. We feel like people get an experience here as well as good food. People come out and just soak it all in, and most of the folks that come and visit, ‘get it.’ Some people get it and some people don’t get it.”
When you come by the Shelby Forest General Store, there are a few things you have got to see. When you come in the door, turn left. You’ll be curious and want to go straight, but turn left and head towards the wall. On your way back there, look to your left and you’ll see a rare creature: the infamous Jackalope and ask Doug about the last colony being found in Meeman Shelby State Park. Head toward the wall, you’ll see a picture of a meeting held at the store on a stand. Big things are coming to Meeman Shelby State Park and the patrons of the Shelby Forest General Store are seeing it happen. Keep walking down the wall, past the rows of merchandise on your right, but watch out for the timeout dolls in the corners. The door on the left, toward the back on the store, leads to the back room. It isn’t open to the public, so what you won’t see is the cooler. The cooler, an old ice cream truck from the ’50s, keeps everything fresh at a cool 38 degrees. The space right in front of the door on the left leads to the restrooms and the tackle room for those that like to fish, but turn right. You’ll be in the dining room. To the left and in front are the booths. The dining room to the left holds an Arkansas state-record fish, a grandmother’s bonnet, a water dipper, and more interesting stories. To the right is the grill area with stools and Mrs. Kristin behind the counter at the grill. Stop and chat or go on ahead, you’ll be back to where you started, but say hi to Doug let him show you the cool stuff he keeps behind the counter. You’ll get to hear about a good friend of the store, Mr. Timberlake. You’ll see a piece of the heat shield that’s been around the moon 30 times from Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission. As you’re talking, Doug will probably tell you, “It’s not our store, it’s the people’s. We’re just shepherds. This is going to go on long after I’m dust.” The store is a place to wander. A place to play I-spy and eat good food.
We were blessed to be introduced to the Shelby Forest General Store and Doug and Kristin Ammons after we covered Backermann’s in our January/February issue. Both stores have a good history together, so if you’re craving some Backermann Yoder pies and can’t head out to Whiteville just yet, tide yourself over by heading to the Shelby Forest General Store and get a few Yoder pies or some F-R-O-G jam while you’re there.
Doug wants people to know that if you’re looking for authenticity, then this is the place to get it, “If there was only one word to describe the store, that would be it; authentic. It’s not pretentious. It’s not artificial or hype and gimmick, commercial. It’s just pure, that’s all. It’s also fun and sarcastic; splinters in your feet and all that other stuff. This place is our dream.”
The Shelby Forest General Store is located at 7729 Benjestown Road, Millington, TN 38053. Doug and Kristin can be reached at 901-876-5770. Steak Nights are Friday nights from 6 to 8 pm, year-round, except if Friday is on Christmas or Christmas Eve.