In Downtown Memphis, workers are making final touches to the faux barn wood and tin roofing that will become part of an outdoor utopia that’s poised to bring about great change for the Uptown and Pinch areas of Downtown. Some say the impact of the new Bass Pro Shops in the Pyramid will have a much more far reaching effect.
Just a short drive (22 minutes, precisely) from the world’s first pyramid-shaped outdoor paradise is an honest to goodness, bona fide outdoor wonderland – Meeman Shelby Forest State Park.
Between the two main entrances to the 13,400 acre park, on the corner of Benjestown and Bluff, stands a small wood frame building. Like the many trees that canopy this building, it’s withstood the elements and stood the test of time.
For the past 81 years, this building has been the home of Shelby Forest General Store – a genuine remnant of days-gone-by, standing almost completely in its original Depression-era form.
Emmet and Dixie Jeter, its original owners, opened the store in the summer of 1934 as a dry-goods store offering “a little bit of everything.” For several years, the Jeters resided in the back two rooms of the store. They later built a home across the street. A school, Jeter Elementary (Justin Timberlake’s elementary school) is still a mere stone’s throw from the store and the old Jeter home.
As the decades passed, a grill was added – making the General Store a gathering place for Jeter neighborhood residents. It became a one-stop-shop for various sundries, hot food, cold beverages, good friends, and the most current gossip.
For over 69 years the General Store was owned by the Jeter and McFarland families (Dixie Jeter was a McFarland by birth). Eventually, the family began leasing the store to others who operated it. However, in 2003, the store’s future became in question when it was put up for sale.
And this is where the story of this old country General Store gets even more interesting.
In 2003, some thought the store would be demolished, possibly to build a more modern gas station. But that wasn’t in the cards.
Insert hard working, city slickers, the Ammons family.
East Memphis financial advisor, Doug Ammons had visited the park and the store with a client a year before it was put up for sale. When the for sale sign was posted in front of the store, Doug’s client called him and asked him to come with him to view the commercial property, which also includes a 2,700 square foot log cabin and 3.1 wooded acres.
Doug’s second visit to the store would change his and his family’s lives forever.
Despite the fact that he’d never operated a retail location or restaurant before, Doug was immediately smitten by the charming old store. His client passed on the opportunity. However, Doug spent all night running numbers based on sales information the store’s operator gave to him. The next day, he spoke to the store’s out-of-town owners and vowed he’d do all he could to make the store his and his family’s.
A few months later, Doug convinced his wife Kristin to make the move from East Memphis to Shelby Forest. They purchased the store, the log home, and the 3.1 commercially zoned acres that came with them. Though Doug continued to work as a financial advisor for one year after purchasing the store, the family embraced the monumental change that was moving from a life in the city, a corporate job, coaching their daughters’ sports teams, and leading their scout groups to a life that revolved around running the store – 7 days per week, 363 days per year.
Doug says, “I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe in predestination. I believe in hard work, perseverance, and a higher power I choose to call God. It was no coincidence we ended up here. And when we got here, we were absolutely committed!”
Doug says that, in purchasing the store, he went against the common business principle that you don’t make a business decision based on emotion. “This deal, purchasing and operating this store, is such an enigma. Without emotion, you don’t have passion. Passion is what prepares you for the unexpected, for when nothing goes as planned. You need passion to be able to persevere, no matter what a day brings. Passion is what drives all this.”
Doug and Kristin, who he calls “51% of this authentic Mom-and-Pop operation (him being the other 49%),” changed very little when purchasing the store. A few things were brought up to code. A new sign was added to the front of the building. The old porch was expanded.
Also, a 16′ x 16′ room that housed only a bait cooler and a pegboard with a few spoons on it (this was once one of the two rooms that made up Emmet and Dixie Jeter’s in-store home) was converted to a seating area with re-purposed booths, authentic tin roofing for walls, and a fresh coat of paint. With this room conversion, the General Store’s Friday Night Steak Night was born.
For the past 12 years, Doug and Kristin have operated the store with a vigor and an enthusiasm that’s nothing short of awe inspiring. This store and the people who frequent it have greatly impacted Doug. He becomes visibly emotional when speaking of the “old guys who’ve sat on this porch, the ones who are no longer with us. Those guys represent the spirit of this store.”
“You can see the tension leave people when they come in the store. You can see their stress melt away as they bask in the spirit of this rare jewel. There’s a sense of relief in their voices when they tell us, ‘We’re so glad you’re still here.'” says Doug.
When asked, “What’s next?, Doug laughed. “I don’t know,” he said.
“For the store, though its legacy is complicated, its opportunities are endless.”
Doug refers to the store as “a classy beacon of yesteryear.” He becomes visibly excited when talking about the bridge being built over the Loosahatchie that will connect Shelby Forest and the store with downtown, I-69, growth in Millington, and the Migratory Bird Flyway.
He believes the 2,700 square foot log home on the property could one day be a bed and breakfast, a fishing and hunting lodge, or a steak house.
Though the store isn’t currently up for sale and though Doug says he and Kristin, “Are here til’ they’re done and they’ll keep having fun,” he believes someone with the right vision and the right resources could do amazing things with the store, the log home, and the 3.1 wooded acres. He also argues with people who say he and Kristin “are the store.” “The store was kicking before we got here and will keep on kicking long after we’re gone,” he says.
As our conversation nears a close, Doug’s eyes once again fill with tears as he discusses the impact the store had on his two daughters, who both delivered their senior impact speeches “on the store and how it had provided purpose in their lives.”
Doug concludes by saying, “Our children are our greatest legacy. Our legacies also lie in the random acts of kindness we perform when no one is looking and in trying to leave this place better than we found it.”
Though he and Kristin are still having fun at the Shelby Forest General Store, he hopes the next owners get the emotional return on the store that they’ve gotten. “In order to do so, they have to be willing to make an emotional investment. They’ll have to invest emotionally in order to get this kind of emotional return. Right now, Kristin and I consider ourselves the luckiest people alive. We’re right here in Heaven without the funeral,” he says.
Shelby Forest General Store is located at 7729 Benjestown Road (from Downtown – North on Thomas/Highway-51 to Watkins. Follow the signs) and is open 7 days per week from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except for Friday nights, when they extend their hours until 8:00 p.m. for Steak Night.
Shelby Forest General Store:
(901) 876-5770, http://shelbyforestgeneralstore.com
Images in this post by photographer Philip Murphy
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