By Carol Vaughn —
The owners of the Village General Store in Pungoteague will retire in July, after owning and operating the store nearly 25 years.
Billy Huffman, who owns and operates the business with his wife, Evelyn, bought the general store from the previous owner, Gary Parker, in 1996.
The building at the time was just seven years old, but there has been a store at the crossroads in Pungoteague since at least the turn of the 20th century, according to Huffman.
Huffman had worked at the Meatland grocery store for two decades before becoming the Village General Store proprietor.
“I worked at Meatland and I was checking in the salesmen. … All of them were talking about this little store in Pungoteague,” Huffman said.
He decided to check it out “and here I be, 25 years later,” he said.
Huffman has had health issues over the years, including a bout with cancer a number of years ago and a diagnosis of arthritis. More recently, Evelyn Huffman also has had some health problems.
“Our original plans were to stay two more years so I could collect Social Security and just cut back maybe to a four-day work week,” said Huffman, who recently turned 60.
Huffman credits the Almighty with changing their plans and allowing the couple to retire sooner.
“It was a God thing, because we hadn’t planned anything. And just as we found out what was going on with her, a gentleman came in the store and said, ‘What’s it going to take to get this store?’ We hadn’t asked, we hadn’t advertised, but when the health issue came up, what were we going to do?” Huffman said, adding, “Then here he came.”
The man purchasing it, Barry Belle, is from Pungoteague and is a 1979 graduate of Central High School. His mother still lives not far from the store.
“He has a little store up in Cambridge and he wanted this little store for his daughter,” Huffman said. Belle said he owns a convenience store, a laundromat, two self-storage facilities, and a home health care business in Maryland. “Being from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I have a strong desire to bring my success in business back to my home town that I have always held dear to my heart,” Belle said.
The new owner told Huffman he has plans to expand the deli, one of the most popular aspects of the Village General Store. Among the most popular offerings are cheesesteak subs and tuna sandwiches, according to Huffman.
“That’s probably 70% of the business,” Huffman said of deli sales, adding, “…If he takes care of that deli, he won’t have any problem here.”
Other popular — and some hard-to-get — items the store sells include hake fish, locally grown fruits and vegetables, old-fashioned wheel cheese, sausage links, chocolate-covered peanuts, pickled pigs’ feet, Nehi and RC sodas, old-fashioned hard Christmas candies, and Tastykake baked goods.
“People ride from Cape Charles to get some spiced ham,” Huffman said, somewhat incredulously.
The change in ownership tentatively is set to take place in early July.
“It will just be a smooth transition — I’ll walk out and he’ll walk in,” Huffman said.
The Huffmans will continue to live in Melfa after they retire.
“Now it’s starting to sink in a little bit and we are looking forward to it,” he said.
News of their impending retirement has resulted in many messages received from customers who are sad to see the Huffmans leave but happy for them.
The comments are made on social media as well as by customers coming into the store and dozens of others who have written their thoughts in a “Happy Retirement” guest book Huffman’s daughter gave them, which sits on the counter near the cash register.
“You don’t realize the number of people…how many people that just come in, wishing you well and thanking you for being part of the community,” Huffman said, adding, “It’s unreal how many people, when you get up to wait on them (say), “I don’t want anything. I just wanted to come in and tell you how much we appreciate you being here.”
For the Huffmans, people of faith, giving God the credit for their retirement plans coming to fruition just when they needed it is not unusual.
Back in 2004, the owners had the conviction they should stop selling alcohol and in 2006, after Huffman was diagnosed with kidney cancer, they stopped selling tobacco — both moves some might call risky for a small retail business.
“I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t sleep, and I was at Sam Welch’s church one night — I’ll never forget it. It was just like somebody spoke in my ear and said, ‘You need to get rid of the beer.’”
He told his wife on the way home from church he was thinking about no longer selling alcohol at the store.
Evelyn then told him she had been praying for over a year that he would decide to stop alcohol sales.
Despite the odds, the move worked out, with the deli business really taking off.
“It’s opened up a whole new clientele,” Huffman said.
Asked what message he would like to convey to the Post’s readers, Huffman said, “Don’t rely on your own plans. A lot of times God’s plans are different. We had no clue that we would be leaving, but the Lord just opened the door up.”