Breathing new life into old store

Heidi Warren and her husband John Warren have recently opened their frame shop, Almost Square Picture Framing, in the old Pointer Brothers general store building in the Bena section of Gloucester. They have returned much of the community landmark to what it looks like when it was a store, and they are encouraging locals to come by, have coffee or a soda, and hang out when they want to. (Sangjib Min / Daily Press / May 11, 2009)

The first time John Warren walked into the old Pointer Brothers store in the Guinea section of Gloucester, he felt like he'd stumbled into something special.
    Though the original sales and display area on the first floor had been cut up by a maze of later walls - and the large opening in the center of second-floor mezzanine had been boarded shut - he still saw such evocative signs of the landmark building's 105-year past that he couldn't help thinking about its potential.
    Less than half a year later, Warren and his wife, Heidi, have set up shop in a largely reborn, architecturally eye-grabbing space that they hope will regain its former place as a hub of daily life in the surrounding, still mostly rural community.
    Part frame shop, part gift shop and part recreated general store, their experiment in historic preservation and modern-day business is still a work in progress, he says.
    But after weeks of renovation and a busy May 2 opening, the steady stream of curious residents who've stopped by on their way down old Guinea Road has given them plenty of reasons to feel hopeful.
    "This is just such an incredible building. Where can you find a retail location where the building itself is such an important draw?" says Warren, who moved to Gloucester from Suffolk last year.
    "And something else we're finding out about is the sense of history and ownership that the local folks have with this store. We want to encourage that. It's a responsibility. And we want to give them plenty of reasons to come in and hang out."
    Constructed in 1904, the Pointer Brothers store was just one of many general stores that dotted the rural countryside of Gloucester between the town of Hayes on the main highway and - as the local describe it - the "Big Circle" of roads that loops around the low-lying neck of tidal land known as Guinea.
    But located at one of the most important crossroads in this out-of-the-way neighborhood, it soon became a thriving business as well as a prominent gathering place. Even after the doors closed for the day, farmers, watermen and other residents would gather here from miles around to talk on the porch or play dominoes.
    Like many other country stores in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, it featured an open display and sales space on the first floor and an open mezzanine or gallery that ran all the way around the inside of the second.
    An impressive staircase in the rear of the room provided access to the mezzanine, while a big pot-bellied stove stood in the middle. Tall shelves packed with dry goods lined the wall to the left, says Mary Harris, 94, who grew up just a hundred yards from the store. Canned goods and groceries filled the big banks of shelves to the right, rising up just behind a well-stocked candy counter.
    In the back of the store, the Pointers kept a refrigerated meat case - a rarity in the days before public electricity came to Guinea.
    "They were more up-to-date than some other stores," Harris says, describing the Pointers' pioneering Delco generator. "But they had a lot of old-fashioned things, too.
    "Mr. Pointer had a lot of horse harnesses and collars hanging over the rail of that second floor. He called it his 'mule millinery.' And that always tickled me as a child."
    Personal service was a routine part of shopping at the store - and not just because it reflected the customs of a bygone era.
    "When you'd walk in, you'd give them your list," says Bill Jenkins, who grew up in Hayes but made many trips down Guinea Road as a child while shopping with his mother. "And they'd walk around with these long, long pickers collecting all the things on your list from the shelves."
    The Pointers knew how to treat their customers on special occasions, too, including the birth of Harris' older brother.
    "My father went down there right after my brother was born, and they gave him a little pair of boots for the baby," she says. "They were the shortest, smallest, tiniest gum boots that I ever saw."
    None of the Pointers' successors could duplicate their long record of success after the last brother died in the early 1950s.