Neck District’s iconic Lewis General Store reopens

Special to Dorchester Banner/Laetitia Sands The Lewis General Store, heart of the Neck District for 140 years, has reopened under management of a computer expert.

Special to Dorchester Banner/Laetitia Sands
The Lewis General Store, heart of the Neck District for 140 years, has reopened under management of a computer expert.

New manager trades computer career for local life

CAMBRIDGE — The historic Lewis General Store, the only place where residents of Dorchester County’s rural Neck District could shop without driving 20 or 30 minutes into town, shut down on Sept. 3, but has reopened under a new manager who plans to expand its inventory and lower prices.

Laura Wingfield, 50, a native of the Neck who spent about 25 years self-employed as a computer specialist, reopened the 140-year-old store Sept. 12, because “I wanted to do something different and didn’t want the store to close,” she told The Dorchester Banner.

Ms. Wingfield has signed a one-year lease, with an option to buy after a year from owners and former managers Jennifer and Youngman Collins, she said Saturday. The Collins family left for California on Sept. 8, to look after Youngman’s father who has cancer. The store’s new manager said she thinks they also “need a change,” adding, “I don’t look for them to come back.”

As for her own plans, “I remember John Lewis [who died in 2008] and the people down here. They need a store. Some of them have to go 15, 18 miles to get bread and milk. I want to expand it into a grocery store again, the way John had it, not just give people breakfast and lunch,” Ms. Wingfield said.

The store, located at 1042 Hudson Road, a 20-minute drive into the countryside west of Cambridge, will be open from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 7 a.m. to noon on Sundays. Breakfast and lunch will be served, as well as all the usual goods available in a general store, from food, beer and wine to batteries, greeting cards, newspapers and the like.

For the moment, the store’s shelves look a bit bare, but the new manager said she plans to add inventory over the next few weeks. She also wants to bring prices down on “beer, cigarettes, things like that.” Already, she has reduced the cost of canned sodas to 75 cents.

“I’d rather sell volume than try to make a lot of money off one sale,” she said.
On Friday, so many people came in for breakfast and lunch that there wasn’t enough food left to serve meals on Saturday, Ms. Wingfield said.

“Some people hadn’t been here for three or four years. The community has been very supportive. I’m very thankful,” she said.

Jennifer Youngman ran a restaurant in the upstairs part of the store, but the new manager said she would not follow suit for the moment, except for private parties and to host groups such as “a ladies’ book club,” which has already reserved space for meetings. The restaurant “may open at some point, but not in the near future.”

Asked hopefully by the reporter if she would do any computer work on the side, Ms. Wingfield, who is divorced but has retained her married name, said emphatically, “No! This will take up too much time. This will be my life for a while.”

In her previous occupation, the store’s new manager did things like writing data-based programs for businesses. She has lived in the Neck since age 2, except for 12 years when she resided in West Virginia.

Built in 1876, the store has a venerable history as a social hub of the far-flung Neck District. Men used to sit around a wood stove in the center of the store, on what came to be called “the liar’s bench,” discussing news, local events and telling tall tales. One of the latter concerned catching an 8-foot shark in a 16-pound net.

Two years ago, the current owners replaced the old stove with a pellet stove because it was easier to maintain. Set back against one of the walls, the stove is the sole source of heat for the store in winter, Ms. Wingfield said.

For generations, the store was family-owned. John Lewis and his wife Shirley ran it for 52 years. They were open seven days a week, from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., except on Sundays, when the store shut at 2 p.m.

But “if you needed something and called him at his house, he’d come after hours,” the new manager recalled. “The store was closed one day a year – on Christmas.” Before that, John’s parents John Sr. and Naomi ran the business, which they had bought in 1947.

In September 2003, on a Friday, Hurricane Isabel flooded the building to a depth of about 18 inches.

“Everyone pitched in to help clean it up and the store reopened on Monday at 5:30 a.m.,” Ms. Wingfield said.

Among the store’s illustrious customers, President Jimmy Carter, who liked to go duck-hunting in the area, used to stop in.

Asked if she would try to attract some of the many tourists who visit Cambridge to her new business, Ms. Wingfield said, “If they want to come down, they can, but I’m interested in the locals … it’s about people from here.”

Asked how soon she would start taking reservations for private parties or events, Ms. Wingfield said, “As soon as I get the phone call.”

To contact the store, which can be reached by taking Washington Street, in Cambridge, straight out in the direction of Hudson, call 410-228-3924.

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