By Marlana Ward
For many rural communities, the neighborhood market becomes not only a place to shop but also a meeting place, news outlet, and origin for events that can change an area’s history. For the Laurel Bloomery community, A to Z Market has been not only a marketplace but also a much-beloved landmark for over fifty years.
A to Z Market was built in the mid-sixties by Raymond Wills, whose daughter, Marsha Blevins, shared the story of how Wills came to found the market in Laurel after having moved from the area following his military service. “He always wanted to move back to Laurel and start a store. He joined the army, and afterward, he settled in Huntington, West Virginia where he met my mom. In 1965, he quit his job, and we moved back to Tennessee.”
In its early days, the market mainly offered grocery type items. However, as time went on, Wills sought out other goods to offer his customers. “My dad started to stock different items like gardening tools, seeds, fertilizer, fresh meat, outside concrete items, and at one time he sold lawn mowers and garden tillers,” remembered Wills.
Not only did local residents visit the store when they needed to buy goods, but they also took the opportunity to visit with neighbors who would also frequent the shop. “I remember on Saturday evenings there were three or four older couples that would gather at the store and sit on the benches and chairs to visit,” Blevins said. Positioned at the intersection of Highway 91 and Gentry Creek Road, the store’s location made it ideal for folks hoping to catch up on community happenings and other neighborly interactions.
It was during a gathering of community members at the store when the idea for a volunteer-run fire department in Laurel was first discussed. “A bunch of local guys were there one day talking about some house fires that had happened recently and how the Damascus Fire Department had to be called for our fires,” Blevins recalled. “They started talking about how they could start a department of our own and Daddy said ‘Let’s just start one.’ That was the beginning of our great fire department here now.”
Wills served the Laurel community for many years, and his connection to the area still resonates with many today. “My dad loved this area, and he was proud to be able to serve the people in Laurel with a grocery store,” Blevins shared. “We had people come back over and over because Dad gave them great deals.”
In addition to Wills, who began the store and started its powerful connection with the community, others have followed in his footsteps to provide goods and services to Laurel Bloomery. “Since my dad retired, there have been a number of renters,” explained Blevins. “My sister in law Doris Rupard and I ran it for about 13 years. My brother and his wife ran it a few years. Tracy Ward also ran it for a few years. Shirley Storie operated it for quite a few years, and she is the one who started the larger deli. Sharon Anderson then started an antique shop along with the groceries and deli.”
With Laurel being several miles from Mountain City, owners and operators of the market sought out ways to be an additional help to their customers who may have difficulty traveling into town. In addition to wares and groceries, A to Z grew over the years to offer special services which set it apart from other area stores. “There was a community post office inside the store from 1984 until just recently,” said Blevins. “There has been a super deli serving things from hamburgers to beans and cornbread. During the New Years season and 4th of July, we sold fireworks.” The shop’s willingness to adapt and its regular customers allowed it to survive for years after other communities saw their neighborhood markets close their doors.
It is the connections with people that the shop owners and operators will always remember from their time at A to Z Market. “I loved seeing the people, and we knew just about everyone in the community,” Blevins shared about the time she worked at the store with not only her father but alongside her sister in law as well. “There were a lot of special moments just visiting with all of them.”
As Laurel Bloomery says goodbye to A to Z market, the small shop’s legacy and the impact those who have operated it have had on the community will be remembered and echoed throughout the valleys of Laurel for generations to come.