When Victor Tart opened a small grocery store in 1968, he was told he couldn't change the exterior of the building because it was a historic property.
That's why Tart's Grocery on Benson Road in Garner still looks the way it does, with wooden boards that have lost their grip and a few bundles of pine straw that serve as insulation.
Tart’s Grocery, affectionately called the Panther Branch Country Club, opened 50 years ago and hasn’t been eye candy for at least that long. But the older it gets the more affection folks seem to have for the place, which has managed to keep its old-school country atmosphere as urban sprawl creeps ever closer.
The sign on the the thick slabs of wood that form the front door says, “Open when I get here. Close when I get ready.”
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Most days Tart makes the nine-mile drive from McGee’s Crossroads in western Johnston County to unlock the door around 11 a.m., although it might be as late as 1:30.
Inside, there's a wooden ceiling and floor, and the walls are plastered with pictures of big fish, an old Mae West movie poster, some political stuff and long-ago-won trophies. Despite is name, there are no groceries for sale except for chips and crackers.
“The old men come to drink a Coca-Cola,” said Tart, 88. “The younger men come to drink a cold beer. Everybody comes to talk.”
And to argue.
Tart told some customers one day that North Carolina has 38,000 miles of railroad track. The doubters discussed it for a while. Somebody pulled out a cellphone and looked it up. Tart was right, enhancing the notion that no lie has ever been uttered in such surroundings.
“I come because I like the people,” said Johnny Deans, a regular who was wearing a U.S. Army hat and a Vietnam T-shirt on this particular day.
“But they don’t like you,” retorted Tart.
Both men laughed. That is the sort of talk that goes on all day and is the reason folks drop by between trips to the store or the post office or maybe on the move to nowhere special.
They come from all over, Tart said, displaying a picture of a group of women from Massachusetts who came for a look around and stayed long enough to be captured on film.
If you are lucky, and most people are, Tart will sit with you at his personal table, the one that displays pictures of his 21 years in the United States Air Force. He rattles off places he served between 1948 and 1968 — the Aleutian Islands; Greece; Spain; Saudi Arabia; Egypt; Afghanistan; Germany; Fairbanks, Ala.; Wichita, Kan.; Texas and Florida. He was a military police officer for a while and later was involved in national security. He can give you the details, but don’t print them.
He’ll point to the picture of him posing with his base’s pistol shooting team. “I’m a lefty,” he said, tapping the picture. “Generally, I could hit whatever I was aiming at.”
And if you take the time and the mood strikes him, he’ll tell the story behind the picture of the 1950 Ford that he bought new for $1,400 after he was transferred from Fairbanks to Alabama. The story of the car and Tart’s Grocery are interwoven.
He was on leave and had driven the car to Benson when he spotted the prettiest girl he had ever seen. He asked his brother about her and learned the beauty was Sudie Tart, no relation, but also uninterested in someone like him. Nevertheless, Tart talked to Sudie and set up a movie date for three weeks later when he would return home on leave.
His brother, being a brother, bet Tart $1 that he couldn’t get her to kiss him. After going to the movie and walking her to the door, he surprised her with a quick kiss.
“She slapped me as hard as she could,” Tart said. “But I won a dollar. She wrote me a letter and said she never kissed on the first date.”
They eventually married and traveled the world, the reason Tart had enlisted in the military. When they got to Pakistan, Sudie looked around and said her husband had carried her 1,000 years into the past. But they were happy together even though her name gave them a lot of trouble when entering some Middle Eastern countries.
“They couldn’t believe she was Sudie Tart Tart,” he said with a laugh.
He bought the store on the spur of the moment when former owner Roy Lassiter grew tired of running it. Tart, who was working at the nearby Wimpy Williams store, bought it on Saturday, did inventory on Sunday — the last Sunday he worked at the store, by the way — and opened Tart’s Grocery on Feb. 1, 1968.
The store was vandalized in 1981, when every soda pop in the place was shot by BB guns. The ice cream box was left open. Hog feed was dumped all over the floor.
Rather than restock, Tart bought a pool table for $1,100, built a bar and removed the shelves. His place was reinvented. The pool table is still there — 25 cents per pool cue per game — but Tart said people don’t seem to play as much as they used to. The dart board is still there, too, and some fellows from the bar won a bunch of trophies that are displayed over the beer coolers.
The TV can pick up most local channels and the dirt at the front door is paved in bottle caps because he dumps the caps there once a month and has for decades.
He still farms some and Tart became famous for his legendary pickled okra, but he didn’t pickle any last year. His only farming now is a small goat herd and a cross burro. The burro, which runs the coyotes off, has a streak of dark fur down its back and over its shoulders. There is a legend that the coloration started with the burro that transported Jesus into Jerusalem before his crucifixion.
“That’s in the Bible,” Tart said.
The goats are his pets, but that doesn’t prevent Tart from selling some off. There’s a story here, too, about the new Cadillac Escalade that hauled one of the goats off to a barbecue.
Sudie survived a bout of cancer, but Tart lost her to a stroke on Nov. 9, 2005. His son died of cancer a few months ago. “When the doctors found the cancer, they said he had two hours, two days, two weeks, two months. Somewhere in there," he said, the pain still apparent.
When he gets serious he’ll tell you that the bar is what keeps him going. “I come here to be with my friends,” he said. “I couldn’t stand being at home all alone. Other folks like to come and be with friends, too.”
The place has all the comforts of home. There’s a two-seat hand-built outhouse around back that is just for show and a port-a-let that costs Tart $74 a month. Gas heat keeps it toasty on cold days, and a huge air conditioner keeps it cool in the summer. The beer is always cold — as cold as your ex’s heart, the sign says — and the regulars sometimes reach over the bar and pick their own.
Many people have tried to buy the Mae West poster — “Every Day’s A Holiday” — but it’s not for sale and neither is the vintage poster of the World Trade Center. Both were bought at yard sales and hold places of honor.
Tart once sold an outhouse for $50, but the posters are here to stay. The regulars like the place the way it is.
It’s not for everybody, though, and Tart knows it. There is a reason pictures of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are prominent along with a bunch of Republicans’ bumper stickers.
There is not a lot of politics talked, though. More important things — like the number of railroad track miles in the state — come to the fore.
If you go to Facebook, you’ll find that 24 people have rated Tart’s Grocery.Twenty-three fans gave it five stars, the highest ranking. Some of the regulars figure the lone four-stars rating was a typographical error.