Gibson’s Grocery is a low-key landmark in the Belmont neighbourhood, at the corner of Avon Street and Hinton Avenue. A red brick building with a crow-stepped gable houses the store and four apartments. With planting, an understated black-and-white sign, and two parking spots, it slips unobtrusively into the residential mix. Within months of reopening in 2011, however, it acquired a loyal following and began to turn a profit.
The proprietor is Chris Gibson, son of Franklin D. Gibson, who started the store in 1977. At age 31, Chris has the look and habits of a young entrepreneur. Yet he insists that he has no business plan, no talent for sales, and no dream of striking it rich.
“I’m a quiet person,” he says. “I don’t like groups, and I don’t conform.” In fact, he left a career in the corporate world to run this small convenience store.
Gibson was born and raised a few blocks away. He attended Clark Elementary School and Charlottesville High School. He went to Piedmont Virginia Community College, just south of Belmont, and earned a two-year degree in business administration. He then worked in human resources for companies in Washington, DC. A member of the Society of Human Resource Management, he still gets the SHRM magazine.
As a teenager, Gibson worked after school in the store with his father. When the elder Gibson suffered a health setback in 1999, he leased the store for ten years. The business deteriorated, the lease was not renewed, and the store sat empty for a year. “The space was in bad shape,” Chris says. “It would cost a good bit to renovate. The family talked about leasing it to a restaurant, but I wanted to save it as a store.”
In January 2010, using his own savings and sweat, he started an overhaul, working on weekends and vacations. He replaced the floor with black and white tile. He exposed the brick walls. He removed the suspended grid ceiling and put in clean, white plaster. He installed new windows, lights, plumbing, case equipment, and stainless steel shelves. During construction, he took progress photographs. Then he put them in a book for customers to leaf through while waiting for a deli sandwich.
Gibson saved items from the old store. He displays them over the wall cooler—a potato chip can, an electric fan, a cash register, a scale, a Mug Root Beer barrel, and Royal Crown banner. He also collects vintage merchandising gear. The star of the collection is Harry the Hotdog, who stands five feet high in the window. It’s a bright, modern space with a touch of history.
From the beginning, Gibson stocked the store from local sources. He carries Virginia wines, which can be pricey, and Treehugger, “made with organic grapes.” He carries beer from local microbreweries, cider from local orchards, bread baked nearby, and Trager Brothers Coffee, roasted in Lovingston. Fresh vegetables, eggs, pesto and hummus come from the Farm at Red Hill, in North Garden. Gibson tries out suppliers, experiments with products, and heeds customer requests. One such was Zapp’s potato chips from New Orleans, which have proved popular.
The store carries a little of everything else, like soft drinks, paper towels, tooth paste, candles, snacks, detergent, energy bars, sandals and greeting cards. Canned goods include brands you won’t find at a chain grocery, like Mrs. Fearnow’s Brunswick Stew. Coca Cola and Pepsi are both on hand. Gibson downplays tobacco, but a small shelf of cigarettes and snuff is behind the counter. Virginia Lottery tickets are a big seller.
The arrangement changes daily. Gibson posts frequent updates on the store’s Facebook page. For Halloween, he puts a giant pumpkin out front, with bales of hay, shocks of corn, and normal-size pumpkins to carve. His mother Sharon brings seasonal decorations she saved from the 1980s, including plush stuffed animals, strings of coloured lights, and an inflated skeleton. A retired nurse, she often sits in a chair in the window and is happy to talk. A photograph of Frank Gibson, who died in 2011, stares down from a wall.
Gibson puts in long hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Alex Widodo, originally from Indonesia, mans the deli, while Gibson works the cash register, greets everyone who enters, and compulsively straightens and cleans. He recycles all waste, “This is my baby,” he says. “I spend most of my waking hours here, and I want it to look right. Big box retailers can buy in bulk, cut prices, offer generic merchandise, and skimp on service. We have a different attitude.”
The store takes credit cards, but it does not allow customers to run up tabs—with exceptions. “The end of the month is hard on some people,” Gibson says. “They run out of money and can’t buy. If I treat people fairly and honestly, I can sleep at night. I want to be a good neighbour.”
Along those lines, he avoids bright exterior lights and noise. He sells bedding plants from a community garden. He stocks CDs from local musicians. And he has a bulletin board for flyers, ads, business cards, and fan mail. Evenings are hectic, but Chris encourages people to drop in during the day to say hello, and he props the door open in good weather. If you are lucky, Sharon will be there to tell you what’s what.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard, B. A. in English, and Yale, M. Arch. His stories, essays, and book reviews appear in 2014 in Belle Rêve, Bangalore Review, Commonline Journal, Coup d’État, Digital Americana, Digital Papercut, Lowestoft Chronicle, Outside In Literary & Travel, Piedmont Virginian, Poydras Review, Ray’s Road Review, Short Fiction, and Work Literary Magazine.