DURHAM — For the last 10 years, Debbie Buchanan could be found operating the register at King’s Red and White, a family-owned grocery store in downtown Durham.
If a customer’s mother had surgery, she asked how the recovery was going. If someone bought a bushel of cucumbers she’d offer a pickling recipe. And she’d look right in the eye of a person who’d never walked in the place before and say, “Welcome, darlin’.”
Buchanan, 57, died last month, one year and 10 days after being diagnosed with cancer. Her loved ones say she embodied what folks appreciate about a place like King’s — quality, friendly service and a personal touch.
Located at a major intersection connecting a number of Durham’s walkable neighborhoods for 58 years, King’s is most appreciated for its high-quality, local meat selection. But for some, the best part was shopping at a modest, family-owned grocery store — the kind often forced out by major chains.
For the last 20 years of her life, Buchanan worked as a cashier at two such shops. Friends and customers — they were one and the same — recall that she could add as much joy to their experience as shoppers as a good price on rib eye.
“She always had a smile on her face, no matter what,” said Regina Hicks, who helps run the meat department.
‘My right arm’
Buchanan was born and raised in Durham. Her first job as a teenager was as a cashier at a Winn-Dixie. It was a good fit.
“She’s always been a really nice people person. She loves people, and to me, she’s never met a stranger,” said her brother, John Gibson, who works at King’s as assistant market manager.
Buchanan worked for a while at a few local dry cleaners, but when Gibson bought his own small grocery store and butcher shop, he quickly hired his sister to help manage Johnny’s Food Land. The store was located at the intersection of Hillsborough and Sparger roads in Durham.
“She was a wonderful sister. She took care of my store, handled my money, wrote my checks for me when I wasn’t there. She was more or less my right arm,” Gibson said.
This lasted for about 10 years until a larger grocery chain ran them out of business. Within a few months the brother-sister duo were hired at King’s, and they brought along a lot of their old customers. Many just didn’t want to part with Buchanan’s charm.
“She kept that same pretty smile, that same nice attitude and personality when she went to work at King’s as when she worked for me. It never stopped; it never stopped,” Gibson said.
Buchanan was widowed, childless, more than 15 years ago. King’s, and its customers, became family.
When Buchanan fell ill last spring, she was soon unable to work, but it was months before her disability checks came in. King’s took up regular collections, said co-owner Babs King.
“Our customers helped take care of her financially,” King said. “They loved her.”
So did the regulars at Charlie’s Pub & Grille, a Durham bar that Buchanan and King frequented every other Friday for their “ladies nights.” Buchanan would sometimes do “The Wobble,” her favorite dance.
With her diagnosis, Buchanan was told she had about nine months to live, and possibly a year if she pursued treatment. She wasted no time in arranging for chemotherapy.
“She wanted those extra months,” King said.
Part of her decision to pursue treatment was likely informed by her role as her mother’s main caregiver. She had lived with her mother, Edna Earle Green, for years, and made sure she was clothed, bathed, fed and had taken her medicine. King recalls Buchanan calling her mother from the hospital, chemo dripping into her IV, to make sure she’d taken her pills on time.
Buchanan displayed the same care and concern for King’s customers.
When Andrea Stephens Davis, a weekly King’s shopper, was in engaged in 2012, Buchanan was among the first to hear the news.
“I don’t have any family here and she was someone I felt close to. I knew that she would be so happy for me,” she said. “She would remember what we talked about the time I saw her last and ask how the pickle making went or how the homemade onion rings were. I never saw her have a bad day or say anything salty to anyone.”
Since her death, King’s employees have simply picked up more hours. No new hires have been made.
“She was the one constant,” said Hicks from the meat department. “Always up there and always smiling.”