CLAY — People living in and around this Elk River town had to drive nearly an hour to buy fresh meat and produce after the Clay IGA, the county’s only supermarket, closed last June after filing for bankruptcy.
But an oasis recently took shape in the county’s food desert. Last December, Clay natives B.J. and Sarah Williams decided it was time to give hometown folks an alternative to traveling to Gassaway, Elkview and points beyond to complete their grocery lists.
“We wanted to start in a smaller location to test the waters,” said B.J. Williams, a masonry contractor before getting his feet wet in the grocery trade.
The couple chose a brick building on Main Street that formerly contained a tax preparation office and began the work of gutting and rebuilding its street-level storefront to create a grocery outlet.
Not long after that work got underway, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in West Virginia, followed by news that new safety requirements were being mandated to slow the spread of the virus. The new development understandably gave them pause, but encouragement from friends, family and neighbors provided the nudge needed to follow through with their plans.
“People still didn’t have access to fresh meat and produce,” Sarah Williams said. “We decided we had to go ahead and open.”
About a month ago, Small Town Market opened its doors — make that window — to a warm reception from townspeople. As a health precaution, customers do not enter the small store, but verbally place their orders through its curbside window. On the other side of the aperture, the Williams couple jots down and fills orders, tallies prices, processes transactions and hands bagged groceries to their customers.
Among produce items available on a recent weekday were strawberries, blueberries, bananas, watermelons, cantelope, apples, oranges, broccoli, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and onions.
“We started out ordering small quantities to see what would sell,” B.J. Williams said. Since then, order numbers have steadily increased, he said, “and so far, we’ve never had to throw anything out” for failing to sell before its expiration time.
In this town of 500, an average of about 100 shoppers a day buy produce, meat or other grocery items at the new store, B.J. Williams said.
Sarah Williams said got the needed approvals from the state to allow shoppers to buy groceries using an Electronic Benefits Transfer system.
Beef sold at Small Town Market is produced by the Wayne Cattle Co., near Gassaway. The Clay market currently receives two grain-finished cattle per week from the company, after the animals have been slaughtered, processed into steaks, roasts and ground beef, and flash-frozen. “We would like to sell more, eventually” B.J. Williams said.
Pork and chicken also are available, along with locally produced eggs and cold cuts, cheese and bacon.
“We would like to sell milk and other dairy products, but, so far, we haven’t been able to find a supplier,” Sarah Williams said.
Among a steady stream of shoppers appearing at the Small Town Market’s window on a recent weekday was Tom Dawson, who picked up some fresh peppers and squash.
Dawson, a first-time shopper at the market, said he had been traveling from Clay to supermarkets in Elkview and Gassaway to buy produce items.
Now that he is aware of what’s available at the new market, “I know I’ll be back,” he said.
“For the town of Clay, this has been a gift from God,” said Dustin Fitzwater, a Small Town Market shopper who helped B.J. Williams offload boxes of produce from a supplier’s truck while a small line of customers formed at the window.
Williams said he can fairly easily double the market’s square footage by renovating another street-level section of building.
“As soon as it’s safe to open up the store and let people in, we will,” he said. “Having some additional room will make shopping better for everybody.”
“We expected to see more shoppers here as the word got out that we are open,” his wife said. “But we’re now seeing twice the number we expected to see.”
The store’s Facebook page keeps shoppers apprised of what new items are in stock (37 fresh produce items were posted Wednesday) and when deliveries of new supplies are scheduled. Customers may call in orders for pickup later in the day. Store hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Shop-by-phone Sunday home deliveries also can be arranged.
The Williamses are the parents of three children, ages 9, 4 and 2. Both are graduates of Clay County High School, with B.J. a member of the class of 2006, while his wife graduated the following year.