Martin Grocer Penny Store owner seeks to spend more time with family

Published 9:59 am Friday, September 18, 2015

Vicksburg’s tiniest and one of its oldest grocery stores will soon close its screen door for good.

Martin Grocer Penny Store, a single-room grocery that for nearly 50 years has turned children’s pocketsful of pennies into pockets filled of candy will close some time in the next week, owner Exelena Martin said.

“I’m going to relax some and visit some and enjoy my life now all the children are grown,” said Martin, who turned 83 in July.

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The single-room is attached to Martin’s house where she and her family moved in November 1967 and she is not restocking inventory. It has outlasted competition and arguably sold more ice cream cones that anyone in the city.

“The kids really love getting a scoop of ice cream,” Martin said.

Prices have gone up over the years, and penny candy is now two cents. A full candy bar is $1 — still cheaper than the gas stations and supermarkets that have eaten away business for neighborhood groceries.

Meadow Street residents said they were sad to see the store go.

“Everybody loves Miss Martin,” said Helen Mathis.

Milton Beverly, who lives across the street from Martin, said he has been coming to the store his entire life.

“I’m going to miss it. I hate to really think about it,” Beverly said.

A 1967 city director lists 88 grocery stores in Vicksburg, Waltersville and Kings. Almost 90 percent of them were family-owned neighborhood stores. Today, businesses are no longer listed by type in city directories. The most recent telephone directory lists 16 grocery stores, including five supermarkets. Additionally, almost every gas station sells some sort of groceries.

Increased competition has hurt sales, but Martin still estimates 30 or more customers a day walk through the aging screen door of her business causing a cowbell her grandmother gave her to signal their arrival.

“People didn’t have cars like they do now,” Martin said of when her store opened. “Now they jump in the car and drive to a place.”

The store is mostly in original condition. The loud clank of the cowbell alerts Martin, wherever she is in her home, that a customer has arrived. The ceiling slants at a steep pitch and is less than 6 feet high at the northern wall. Two bare light blubs provide all the light shoppers need in the full-service store. The store has no particular hours.

“I close up when I get ready. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so,” she said.

Martin hopes to be closed next week but must close by the end of the month since she has no plans of renewing her business license. City zoning regulations now tightly control where businesses can be established. Martin’s store was grandfathered in under previous rules and it’s unlikely anyone could follow in the footsteps of this one-of-a-kind shop.

“They probably wouldn’t let anyone else do it now,” Martin said.

Counters and shelves were replaced about six years ago and safety glass was put up around the counter.

“I haven’t had any trouble until recently. Times are different now,” Martin said.

The penny store, as neighbors called it, was the go to place for snacks for decades. Alonzo Stevens, a retired Vicksburg High School football coach and school board member, remembers walking to the store from school at a time when 50 cents could buy bubblegum, a popsicle and a soda.

“We used to go over there when Bowman Elementary was open,” Stevens said. “It was always a quick stop to get good stuff.”

After operating another store for about two years, Martin and her family moved to Meadow Street shortly after Thanksgiving 1967.

Her husband, Simmuel Martin, worked in the city’s gas and water department. When they moved into the family home, she convinced him to add onto the house so she could continue running a store.

“My husband was working and I had children. He wanted me to stay home,” she said.

Simuell Martin died in June 1974 when a ditch he and another city employee were digging collapsed on Lane Street. The one-room store became the Martin family’s main source of income.

“I enjoyed it,” Martin said. “I never had to ask my children for money,” she said.

It outlasted two other stores in the neighborhood that sold similar goods, and could likely survive as long as Martin wanted to keep it going. But with 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, the longtime grocer said she’s ready to spend all her time with family. A retirement ceremony is set for the week after Thanksgiving, exactly 48 years since she opened up shop in her home.

“All the family will be there,” she said.