LOUISA — Old-fangled, wood-paneled walls connected by time-worn plank flooring wear their faded paint, nicks, scratches and stains as proud vestiges of long years of commerce and community.
On a far wall, an old-school bottle opener sits above decades-old dark stains left by splashing soft drinks purchased by disembarked train passengers from a nearby depot, itself in long disuse for all but storage.
The building — its construction and visage revealing decades of service — is the perfect place to run a store, if you ask Kelley Thomas.
Thomas, with help from boyfriend Morgan Perkins, is reopening the Maddox Feed Store on Church Avenue in Louisa to sell feed and seed — from dog food to horse, from flowers to crops.
“It did pretty well before and I think it will do well again,” Thomas said, leaning on a wood display stand in the center of the store. “This is farming country and everyone loves their animals. They love their dogs, their cattle, pigs and goats, and there are a lot of horse people. We’re going to have products for all the animals.”
Starting a store from scratch is no easy deal. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, about 20% fail in the first year. Nearly 50% falter in the first five years. Only a third of businesses make it to a decade.
But Thomas believes that eight decades or more of name and place recognition and community goodwill in the county’s close-knit agrarian culture give her a jumpstart toward success.
“The store has history. People know it. They came here for years and their parents and grandparents came here,” Thomas said. “Mr. Maddox bought if from Mr. Coppage in 1940, I believe, and Bradley [Pleasants] bought it from Mr. Maddox in 1979. Bradley decided to close it down last summer. I decided it was time to make a change from what I was doing, and he agreed to sell the store to us and let us continue using the name, which he wouldn’t have done for just anybody.”
Judging by the walls’ tongue-in-groove bead board paneling painted a long-worn spring green with a portion now a faded off-white, the store has changed little since the 1940s. A Huntsman wood stove stands away from the wall, a source of heat and center of community conversation. Vintage metal feed and seed signs remain nailed to the walls.
That, Thomas said, is the store’s essence.
“We’re not going to paint it. We’re going to clean it up and touch it up but we’re going to leave it as it is,” she said. “We want it to be an old-time feed store with traditional customer service.”
Perkins is helping Thomas get the store pulled together and up and running. The owner of Louisa County-based Mo’s Trapping and Damage Control, he said he, too, sees the possibilities of bringing the store back to business.
“I’m from around here and I know what people in this area felt when the place closed last year,” Perkins said. “People were pretty sad about it. ... They like a place where you get personal service, where they can sit around the wood stove and just talk about what’s been going on. You can’t do that at Tractor Supply.”
For Thomas, the store could be more than a new career; it might be a godsend. After 15 years working in medical technology, 10 years at a memory care facility and five years at the University of Virginia, she was deep-down ready for a change.
The death of her 29-year-old brother convinced her to take a risk.
“It reminded me that life is short. Either you live your best life or you just go through the motions, not really happy, just doing what you do to make ends meet,” she recalled. “Morgan saw me struggling and I was losing it. I had no patience with the kids because of work issues.”
Still, running an operation that will sell hay, livestock feed and supplements, dog food and eventually ammunition, firearms, jellies, jams and other products is not a cakewalk.
“This is something I know I can do. This is in my blood,” she said.
She may not be exaggerating. Thomas is a granddaughter of George Cason, one of the Cason brothers who helped found the Charlottesville City Market and other farmers’ markets out and about the region. The brothers began their retail careers selling Christmas trees and decorations on city street corners in the Depression.
“She’s definitely a Cason,” laughed Perkins. “I’ve never known anyone who could take a lot of nothing and make something and make a profit from it like the Casons — and I mean that in a good way. She’ll do fine.”
What does Thomas’ grandfather think of her reopening the store?
“He was hesitant. He said, ‘well, I’ll try and find you a good bankruptcy lawyer,’” Thomas laughed. “But then he took me around to some places and started bragging on me and the store and what I’m doing, so I’m sure he approves.”
So does the community, apparently. Several folks wandered by to check on the store’s progress, including Edward Leake, a long-time customer of Maddox Feed Store before its closing.
“I’m glad it’s coming back. Folks missed it. I’m glad to see the wood stove is still here but they need some more chairs to put around it so people can sit and talk,” he chuckled. “This used to be a hangout for all the farmers and my grandpa spent a lot of time here and I’ve been stopping in for years. I like to support local people and their businesses. I’m not much on corporations.”
“It’s going to be hard work. It’s going to be crazy, but I’m ready for the ride,” Thomas said. “I’m not trying to get rich. I’m trying to be OK.”