As you turn the corner onto High Street, they catch your eye immediately: a group of men talking and laughing on the front porch of an old-fashioned storefront. Above, a sign advertises: Newspapers, Coffee, Lottery Tickets, and Good Times.
An unwritten law mandates that all small towns have a hangout where citizens gather for coffee and gossip. In Bellefonte, Penn. (pop. 6,358), that place is Sues Variety Store.
The store has been here nearly as long as the town, which was a center of mining and iron production in the mountains of central Pennsylvania during the 1800s, and neither Bellefonte nor Sues Variety Store has changed much since.
This morning, the stores regulars are engaged in lively discussions ranging from the weather to politics, or the physical attributes (and detriments) of certain TV celebrities. At the stores entrance, the nonstop chatter gives way to Jim Reeves sweet crooning, wafting from a phonograph record in a back corner of the store. Step inside and you enter another era.
Bellefontewith its working 19th-century train station and train, historic district, Victorian homes, courthouse, shops, and quiet atmosphereis the sort of town you may have thought didnt exist anymore. Of Sues Variety, you might think the same thing.
Dark cherry cabinets run the length of the walls, and a magazine rack nearly touches the ceiling. A soda fountain, a checkerboard on a table by the front window, and shelves displaying Bromide-Seltzer, Swans Toothache Drops, Woodbury Cold Cream, and My Knight Pomade greet the customer. Stacks of current newspapers are the only evidence that the year is 2000.
The store, under various owners, has been in business for 141 years. For many residents, its the first stop on their daily roundsa place of charm, character, and history, much like the community around it.
Seven Pennsylvania governors have called Bellefonte home, and many of their and others mansions still stand. One of the towns most notable features, howeverand the one for which it was namedis Big Spring, the daily source of millions of gallons of spring water. When the French aristocrat and statesman Talleyrand visited the town in the early 1800s, he described the spring as La belle fountaine, and the name followed.
Talleyrand Park, named for its early visitor, is a short walk from the antique and crafts shops, artist studios, and Historic District. From the park, one can ride the Bellefonte Historic Railroad through surrounding countryside, or tour historic homes and gardens.
But if one thread, one place, were chosen to represent the fabric of the town, it might well be Sues Variety and the echoes of seven generations of customers.
Its kind of a tradition; good talk, good coffee, says Gig Corman, whos been coming to the store every morning for 30 years.
Bellefonte resident Sue Green, 40, bought the place two years ago, determined to preserve a town custom while fulfilling her dream to have my own little store.
Hello! How are you today? Sue cheerfully calls to her regulars as they parade through the door in a steady stream that begins at 6 a.m. and doesnt let up until early evening.
Sue Green knew her dream would succeed, thanks to the stores history and loyal customers. She eagerly redecorated with collectibles to evoke nostalgia. Hoping to create a small town sanctuary where folks would gather, Sue placed wrought-iron chairs and tables on the stores small porch and encouraged her customers to stop, unwind, and visit a spell.
Now, Sues is a collective break room for downtown office workers who duck in for coffee and snacks, and the store is news and information central for many of Bellefontes retired men. Quite a few of its early and end-of-the-day customers work at Penn State Universitys Park Campus, just 10 miles to the south.
I cant miss this zoo, says Dick Kisslak. I gotta come in here every day and see what happens.
As a child, Frank Clemson used to visit the store for penny candy, which Sue continues to stock today. But now he stops for the conversation.
Hello, Sweet Lips, Clemson greets Sue, who laughs. This is probably the one-and-only Sweet Lips kind of place left. She hugs Clemson, as she does many of her favorite customers.
Doesnt Sue wind up with angry wives on her doorstep?
No! declares store assistant Renee Brown. What we do is start their hearts and send them back home.
Brown, a town council member, stopped by to welcome Sue when she opened, telling her, I actually wanted to buy this store and that didnt happen. So, since I didnt buy it, I want to work here!
Brown now volunteers a few hours a week at the busy lotto counter, where Sue toots a harmonica every time a customer wins.
If youre down and depressed, she cheers you up, says customer Kenny Holderman of Sue. Thats why I like her so much.
The affection is mutual.
Taking a break outside, Sue gazes warmly at her customersher friendsenjoying the porch, the town, and the camaraderie.
I appreciate these people.