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Country stores — a hallmark of rural life — deal with the challenge of inflation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Country stores are a hallmark of rural life; the kinds of places where you can buy fertilizer in one aisle, lotion in the next and crickets for bait in a third. Many have survived for more than 100 years by adapting to everything from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. And now, those stores are dealing with their latest challenge - high inflation. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on how one store is putting those survival skills to use.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: The Simmons-Wright Company store in Kewanee, Miss., has two floors filled with baskets of cotton, cast-iron skillets and Mississippi-shaped magnets. And with inflation squeezing customer wallets, sales are down for nearly all of it.

GARY PICKETT: Normally, we'll have people coming in here buying 100, $150 worth of stuff. Now, they are coming in here, and they maybe buy $20 worth of stuff.

BISAHA: Gary Pickett owns the Simmons-Wright Company, a family business just off the interstate passed down to him by his aunt. The home repair wall does pretty well. He bought most of it from a hardware supplier that went under five years ago, so he hasn't had to raise prices too much yet. Pickett points out a customer inspecting a roll of copper wire.

PICKETT: Look like a man - see he sees the old price on the wire there, and he knows he's getting a deal. Copper wire's really gone through the roof. If I replaced, like, that roll he's got right there, instead of being, like, $25, that's, like, 60 bucks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Love you all. Thank you.

PICKETT: Love y'all. Thank y'all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: See ya in the morning.

PICKETT: All righty.

BISAHA: The store has been around for 138 years. It's one that survived that long by knowing how to adapt, like in 2008. The Great Recession hit the store's bottom line, so Pickett shifted to cooking. He started offering fried catfish and pork skins. And that's helping him stay open as dollar stores take over as the place to buy things for cheap.

PICKETT: Dollar Generals are everywhere. But I don't try to compete with them. We just try to keep on doing our thing with the cooking part. And it's really helped us out a lot.

BISAHA: Even before dollar stores, there was Walmart, and many country stores had to shut down. Those that did survive have been the ones able to adapt with the times. Pickett expanded his restaurant business by delivering burgers to a truck line across the border in Alabama. But even the food side of Pickett's business is feeling the sting of this high inflation that we haven't seen in 40 years.

PICKETT: Well, the beef and the meat has almost doubled in price. And we've gone up just a little bit. We hadn't gone up the percentage we need to go up. I know we're going to have to go up. We just don't want to run everybody off, regular customers.

BISAHA: Other country store owners say the same thing. They're raising prices as little as they can because they're based in poor communities that just can't afford it. Before, Pickett wouldn't mind throwing some extra fries into the meals. But now, to keep prices down, Pickett's team measures everything. Even the hamburger patties get weighed before cooking. Yet concern about a possible recession means long-term survival could require more drastic changes. One idea he's considering is leaning into the store's nostalgia and making the place an event venue.

PICKETT: Like a wedding on the weekend - if you let them rent the cotton gin for a photo shoot and have a wedding up there, it'd be 10,000 bucks, you know, or more.

BISAHA: Country-like nostalgia is already a big part of the business. The old nutcrackers and antique soda bottles might not sell, but they draw in customers like 75-year-old Lewis Hankins (ph). He made the short drive here from Alabama, and he can't stop playing show and tell with the rusted farm equipment he pulls from the shelves.

LEWIS HANKINS: This old - that's a whole sausage meal right there. You take and put your sausage in there, your pork and then put your seasoning in there, and you made your own sausage. I mean, you know, it's just fascinating.

BISAHA: Despite Hankins gushing over the old tools, he didn't buy any of them. And the canned goods and lotions in the other aisles? Well, he'll pick those up at the dollar store instead.

HANKINS: Because it's cheap. And your money - and the way money is now, it is so tight.

BISAHA: But he still sat down for a meal and enjoys excuses to support a story he sees as one of the last vestiges of country life.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Kewanee, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.