BIG STONE GAP — Penny Jeffrey spent four years getting to May 26, when she will open the Big Stone Gap General Store and Café on Wood Avenue.
Jeffrey said those four years ranged from a desire to re-create the atmosphere of an old-time general store as a community fixture, to drawing up a business plan, to worrying if it was possible and taking the plunge.
“Every time we’d travel, we’d see these general stores,” Jeffrey said, sitting at a table in what used to be the press room for The Post, the town paper which moved to new quarters a few years ago. The original pressed tin ceiling is still there, painted white and part of an overhaul that kept the original wood flooring and concrete equipment pads with seven-decade-old initials of people who saw them poured.
Jeffrey has ties to Wise County through her husband, Brian, who spent time with relatives in the county and in Abingdon and went to school in Wise County before he went to college. That helped steer her plans. Seeing the Post building up for sale a few years ago sharpened her vision.
“There’s three other restaurants downtown here, and they all offer something unique,” Jeffrey said. “I think it’s good to have that.”
Jeffrey said she wanted to preserve as much of the character of the building’s original purpose as possible while making it a place where artisans and musicians can display their work, perform and share their knowledge. Artists came through during the week to bring pieces for display and sale, and the Jeffreys installed a performance stage in honor of Brian Jeffrey’s relatives, the Countiss family from Wise.
Doorways leading into other parts of the building are topped with replicas of Big Stone Gap street signs, and parts of a masonry dividing wall have the plaster removed to show the blocks bearing the name of the brickyard that cast them.
Jeffrey said the stage will be a place for musicians to gather and play one night a week, alternating with open-mic night, square dances and music lessons from local artists throughout the week.
Dominating one side of the main room is Myrtle, the coal-fired pizza oven installed a week earlier. Jeffrey said artisan-style pizza will be another attraction the General Store and Café will offer for downtown visitors.
“We’re not a restaurant,” Jeffrey said. “This is a place where you can come in and have a drink, get a soda or look around. There are two other pizza restaurants in town, and we’re not competing with them. We are offering something different though, with gluten free crusts and the kind of pizzas some people might not see that often here.”
Besides producing pizzas, Jeffrey said, Myrtle will also generate coal ash that will be sold for gardeners wanting to add texture to their soil or improve its drainage.
A side room that once housed The Post’s business offices will become a tap room, she said. An old page layout table will be the bar, and an old light table used for graphic page design has become one of the customer tables. Old shelving that held back issues of The Post help add character to the room, and an old bank of wooden auto parts bins will become a wine rack.
“We’ll be serving craft beers and wines from area wineries in here,” Jeffrey said. “People can come here and get a taste of what the area has to offer.”
Having made the move from Pittsboro, North Carolina, where Penny taught college and Brian still works in IT support, the couple and daughter, Olive, live in a former bookstore in town and have a farm and animal rescue just outside town in Lee County.
“We really like living in town,” Penny Jeffrey said. She said the bookstore-now-house left them a surprise: a kitten that managed to get inside the house and crawl up in the basement ceiling.
“We called Jack and Wendy, who had started a feline rescue group when they lived there, and told them that the bookstore left us a cat,” Jeffrey said. “We named her Amanda, and she’s a pretty little calico.”
The Big Stone Gap General Store and Café opens for mercantile business May 26 and for food service to be announced in June, and Jeffrey said she hopes anyone with connections to the building from past years can come by and share their stories.