DIXIE — For a store that opened with the thunder of a locomotive, the closure of the Dixie Grocery came as quietly as a feather floating on a winter’s day.
For 124 years the market persevered on U.S. Highway 12, starting as a bustling grocery in an industrious community 10 miles east of Walla Walla. In more recent years it sustained as one part pitstop for passing traffic between towns and the other as a social hub for the community of a couple hundred people.
If the end in late December came with little fanfare it’s partly because owner Jim Joseph couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
“It’s just the economy, basically,” Joseph said, breaking the silence in a telephone conversation that caught him a little off-guard. “It was kind of a sad thing.”
A sign on the door gives a number for those interested in buying the metal building with the red facade. Joseph said he’s asking $120,000, basically the assessed value of the property plus some equipment — coolers, ice machine, hot dog machine.
Joseph and his wife, Kim, bought the business in 2010. But last year was particularly slow, he said. It was further exacerbated by financial setbacks on which he didn’t expound.
“You get behind and it’s hard to catch back up,” he said. “It was kind of a sad thing.”
Dixie residents were disappointed and somehow unsurprised at the same time. The store had become such an everyday part of the community — like the post office and school — that its absence is huge. And yet, few understand how it survived as long as it did.
“It’s a landmark. It’s always been there. It’s kind of strange not to have it,” said Dixie resident Randy Townsend who faithfully parked his wheelchair at a table at the back of the store with a crowd of other diehards for coffee and conversation in the mornings.
Townsend remembers mowing lawns to earn money for candy and soda at the Dixie Grocery when he was a kid. Hunting season and harvest would pack the place with people picking up provisions for the day.
Despite the seasonal bursts and local drop-ins for random items, Townsend said operating the store could never have been easy. The little grocery with the bench out front, just footsteps from the post office on the 40 mph stretch of the highway, charged more for virtually everything. And it had to.
Stocking the store with everything from milk to apples cost money, even when those items weren’t in demand, he said. Beer remained a best-seller even through closure. (As a side note, the owner said cigarettes and pop tied for second.) But as more people stocked up on their staples in town, the need for odds and ends diminished.
Townsend stopped going so frequently a couple of years back after he moved to a place across Dixie. He didn’t have much chance to get to know the new owners, he said. But he wasn’t the only one surprised by the store’s closure. A couple of weeks after it closed Townsend recalled seeing one of Dixie’s most well known nonagenarians, Tom Lamb, standing outside the building. He was apparently waiting for the business to open and had been unaware of its closure.
“I think it makes it harder for the elderly people out here who don’t have transportation to town,” Townsend said. “They’d get the little odds and ends they need to get by. I think that’s the main thing.”
In its heyday, the Dixie Grocery was alive with activity. In the early 1900s the town had a stop on the Walla Walla-Lewiston stagecoach line. The store was one of two in the community. There were also thee churches, a hotel, a post office and a weekly newspaper. Now there’s one church, one school and the post office, which operates on reduced hours.
Up the road from Dixie Grocery on Cornwall Street, Audrey Renaud can relate to the challenge of retail business in a remote community. Her “TooLaMah” shop on a recent February afternoon had seen just a couple of customers all day.
The business sells handcrafted jewelry, beads, crocheted items, gifts and more. It’s in a cinder block building with concrete floors. Jewelry cases display some of the items. The vast space features racks of clothing and shelves of items that have been beaded, sewn, knitted and otherwise crafted. The name of the business is a translation of the French Canadian mispronunciation of actual French words, Renaud said. It means “all the hands,” a reflection of the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the items are handmade.
Renaud acknowledged the economics likely didn’t play in favor of the Dixie Grocery. She could get a half-gallon of milk there for nearly the same price as a gallon in Walla Walla and hardly blink an eye at the gas it took to get her there.
But there’s more of a loss to the community with the closure than access to groceries, she said in an email.
“Besides the regular quick-stop fare, it was a gathering place, sold lottery tickets, posted notices of events, gave directions, and a plethora of other services,” she said. “I was both shocked and sorry to see it close.”
Renaud thinks a small coffee shop/lunch counter with sack-lunch service could make a go of it in the same spot. Maybe something run through a culinary arts program, a private enterprise, or out-of-work veterans, she suggested. Someone who could build it through what would likely be a slow start, she said.
The current owner said he’s received a few calls of interest. He recalls came upon the opportunity to buy the business through an online ad. He said the business is a challenge, especially working with perishable items and making enough sales to maintain vendor relationships.
But you won’t find a better place to do it, he said.
“The people of Dixie are fantastic,” Joseph said. “They support that store, and they are just hard-working people. I miss that a lot.”