Three dollars can buy one hologram postcard, 12 atomic fireballs, or three peacock feathers at Alley’s General Store.
For those willing to shell out a bit more, the dealers in almost anything can provide nearly everything: organic pet shampoo, a clam rake, a Nunchuck (used for lassoing nuns up to 15 feet), pickled ginger for sushi, or a gallon of milk.
But no amount of money could buy a wristwatch at the country store this week. Alley’s was completely out of stock. No matter. Quietly tucked into the center of West Tisbury, the shop, which turns 150 this year, is the last place on earth where a watch is necessary.
In many ways, Alley’s is timeless. Just as they used to do in the 19th century, fishermen, farmers and workers still congregate on the front porch before heading out to sea, soil or site. West Tisbury residents (150 of them) still pick up their mail here. And just as they could a century and a half ago, store clerks still mark the passing of the hours by the customers who walk in and out the front doors.
Alley’s opens at 7 a.m. seven days a week, year-round, rain or shine or snow. They close at 6 p.m. in the off-season, 7 p.m. in summer. First to arrive are the carpenters and landscapers. They come for the coffee and usually walk away with something else — a roll of electrical tape, an extra screwdriver, or the daily paper. Then come the school kids. Store manager Rhonda Backus tells the time by their arrival: “7:30 is the high school. It’s 8 a.m., or shortly before, for the charter school,” she said. “Then for the high school, they’re back at 2:30. West Tisbury is 3 o’clock and the charter school is 3:30.”
This time of year, she knows the time is 9 o’clock when the porch empties out. In the middle of summer, that porch is nonstop busy with regulars and tourists, cyclists on their way to Aquinnah, or those who simply stop in for the latest town gossip. Come fall, the swing out front is empty once the workday begins. The minutes drag on until noon. Every so often, someone straggles in or a tour bus comes through. The lunch crowds arrive at noon; the after-school set follows. The place gets another boost at 5 p.m. when work ends and the store closes at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. in summer.
The store slogan is put to the test from the moment those doors open to the time they close again for the day. “We still try to have everything for everyone on a daily basis,” Ms. Backus said. “We have the groceries, the hardware. If a contractor runs out of things, they can stop by for a quick fix, or a homeowner.” The shelves don’t lie. Candy bars and soda, comic books and wrenches, Barbie Doll fishing poles, the New York Times, artisanal Brie cheese and yellow boxes of Cheerios — this store does have nearly everything. And if they don’t, Ms. Backus will order it. If you don’t see it ask, read a sign which used to hang above the register.
But the store is more than a dealer in almost anything. It is a community meeting place, a historical institution and an Island tradition. Over the years, its name has changed three times. Owners and services have come and gone. West Tisbury natives ran it for the first 113 years, then the washashores came on board. At one time the store boasted a laundromat, a car wash and a weekly ice cream gathering in winter called Doldrum Sundaes.
This is how the store got its start: After a failed trip to California in search of gold, West Tisbury resident Nathan Mayhew (he was blind) returned to the Island and opened shop. The year was 1858. Sons Sanderson and Ulysses took over the operation following Mr. Mayhew’s death and, in 1867, gave the store its first official name, S. M. Mayhew Co. Regulars later nicknamed the place Sanderson’s. The store had a stove inside around which townspeople gathered on quiet, cold evenings. “Around the stove at Sanderson’s/ The Past and Present meet,” Harold L. Tinker wrote. “The gentle shadows of the past/ Come in on quiet feet./ They sit around on stool and keg,/ Grown man and gangling kid,/ And listen to the ageless yarns/ Just as they always did.”
In 1914, longtime clerk Charles Turner bought the store and tweaked its name. It was a small change, but a legal one: The S. M. Mayhew Co. In 1927, he built a post office inside and became postmaster. In 1946, another longtime store clerk, Albion Alley, bought the business. Mr. Alley changed the name yet again (Albion Alley and Co.) and put in the laundromat and car wash. In 1964, he turned the store over to his three children who changed the name once and for all to simply Alley’s.
The following years brought change, a series of new owners and financial troubles. In 1992, for the first time in its 134-year history, the store closed for the winter. The following year, the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, a quiet nonprofit organization that buys and maintains historical properties around the Island, paid $300,000 for the building and the business. “General stores in general are a disappearing element of the American landscape,” trust executive director Chris Scott said this week.
Most general stores today survive through a combination of prepared food, lottery ticket and beer and wine sales, he explained. Alley’s cannot sell prepared food because of an agreement with Garcia’s, still colloquially known as Back Alley’s. West Tisbury is a dry town. And the store chooses not to sell lottery tickets. The fact that Alley’s is still in existence is remarkable, Mr. Scott said. “Really in a lot of ways, it is the heart of the historic village of West Tisbury,” he continued. “We have 150 mailboxes, so there are a large number of people who spend time in the store every day. So there’s that social aspect too. They’ll see their neighbors, share a cup of coffee on the porch. In the wintertime, we set up a cribbage table in the hardware section.”
When the trust bought the property, the community rallied behind the effort, starting a “Save Alley’s” campaign which contributed $400,000 towards a million-dollar renovation effort.
On Sunday, the community is invited to celebrate the 150th birthday of the store they helped to save. Activities, races, hamburgers and hot dogs are available from 4 p.m. until dark. Attendees are asked to bring a side dish to share.
“I was born and raised here and these [Preservation Trust properties] — the Flying Horses, Alley’s — they’re important to me as an Islander, as a native Islander,” said Ms. Backus who organized the event. “I think it’s really important that the community — the morning coffee crowd, the kids that get off the school bus, the tourists — share in its celebration.”
In the near future, Alley’s devotees will have something new to celebrate.
After Columbus Day, the preservation trust will begin rebuilding the barn behind the general store. It will open in spring as a seasonal produce market for Island growers to sell their goods. “If you can’t sell wine and beer, you better sell fresh vegetables,” Mr. Scott joked. “The motto of the store is, dealers in almost everything. And it truly is.”