Virginia Hart is often the lone soul in Lone Pine Market.
She and her husband of 51 years, Don, owned the store for 22 years until his death a decade ago. Virginia has run the place since then, by herself.
Her customer base, once healthy, has diminished – partly because of dwindling population, but a circumstance she blames mostly on the closure of two nearby bridges and installation of an underground gas line a year ago, limiting accessibility to her property.
The market, at 618 Lone Pine Road, is like a second home to her. And she is devoted to it.
Yet, despite infrastructure changes, despite throbbing knees, despite an inability to attract a trustworthy, full-time employee, Virginia Hart has kept the Amwell Township store going. Kept herself going as well.
“You have to stay busy. You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself. That won’t get you anywhere,” said the sprightly 88-year-old with a quick wit and an easy smile.
Although she isn’t enamored of the prospect, Virginia has decided to sell the lone grocery in Lone Pine. It will be up for auction at 10 a.m. Saturday through Teagarden Auctions of West Alexander.
In an advertisement in the Observer-Reporter on Sept. 15, auctioneer Doug Teagarden described the building as a two-story commercial structure with a covered front porch and a heap of storage space in the basement.
It sits on a nine-tenths of an acre parcel with a paved parking lot. Christmas light displays, including a tree and a reindeer, adorn the exterior of the second floor, which the Harts built following their 1987 purchase.
They added that story, with a gabled roof, to eliminate flooding issues caused by the flat roof of the one-story structure. The second floor also gave the couple a place to live.
Virginia said the building has existed for “at least 70 years” and had “two or three” previous owners. Teagarden referred to it as “a diamond in the rough.”
The store may be struggling now, but for the surviving owner, Lone Pine Market has been a precious jewel to cherish.
“We used to be so busy, we needed two or three workers,” Virginia said. “We used to make hoagies and sell ice cream. Guys at the truck stop would come back later for a second hoagie.”
Foot traffic has been lighter in recent years, at times consisting of friends wanting to socialize, bring her food or merely check on her.
Shelves are crowded, in some instances displaying unusual juxtapositions of merchandise. One area, in the middle of the market, features paintings next to stacks of canned foods. Several coolers line one wall and stacks of snacks and candy abound.
But because of property restrictions in an auction, walk-in customers cannot purchase many items they see. “Milk, bread, pop and cigarettes are about all I can sell,” said Virginia, a mother of three who has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
She is a trusting sort who allows some regulars to shop by credit – pay at a later date. Pulling out a thick stack of payment due slips, however, she admits it’s a system that isn’t cost effective.
“If I was paid back everything I was owed, I’d be able to buy the store two times.”
As a one-woman show, Virginia works 12½ hours every day, from the 8 a.m. opening to 8:30 p.m. closing. And that’s EVERY day – seven per week, 365 or 366 per year. She is loyal to the business, and the customers she serves.
“I never close because people always forget something,” she said, shrugging.
Work can be a royal pain for her – literally.
“Both of my knees are gone. I can stand for about three minutes,” Virginia said from her usual perch, in a seat behind the cash register. “That’s why I go around in that,” she added, pointing to a motorized wheelchair on the opposite side of the counter.
“I’ve never had time for surgery. A couple of times I was ready to go in, and something else blew up.”
She is still conflicted over selling, an experience, Virginia admitted, has disrupted her sleep many nights. Teagarden, a longtime family associate, said the two began discussing a possible auction sale last year, and after agonizing over it for months, Virginia gave him the go-ahead.
Teagarden said the process on Saturday essentially will be three separate auctions: of store items; of firearms; and of farm equipment.
The current owner does have a post-Lone Pine Market plan: She wants to grow flowers and sell them. But don’t be surprised if Virginia is still in the building. She loves the place even more than she enjoys talking with customers.
“I don’t like to stop,” she said. “If we find someone good to run the store, I’d love to work for them.”