THE compressor of the ancient red Coke cooler clanks and vibrates as Billy Seymour warms his hands over the small gas stove in the center of the store. ``I've only got 264 more days to go,'' he says. ``I haven't counted today yet.''
After tending the store for 40 years, Mr. Seymour will retire at the end of the year. The business will pass into the hands of Seymour's niece, whose father now owns the building.
Like many small family-owned variety stores, Seymour's may soon be only a memory - replaced by one of the many look-alike chain convenience stores springing up across the United States. When Seymour's joins the list, another piece of America will be lost.
Seymour's, situated in the tiny northeast-Georgia town of Dewy Rose, has been the center of community activity longer than anyone there can remember.
``In 1906 this was a very old store,'' says Walter Maxwell, a resident farmer in his 70s. ``No one around here can remember when it was built. It's just always been here.''
Mr. Maxwell, a tall man with an intense sense of humor, is usually the first customer to arrive. Today he stops at the store to snack and to catch up on the local news before traveling 40 miles to Washington, Ga., in his flatbed truck to pick up a load of hay.
He is soon joined by Haley Butler, 80, who remembers the store from his childhood.
``I used to walk down here to the store to buy candy when it used to be nothing but a dirt road here,'' Mr. Butler says.
Although the years have inexorably drifted by, the store has undergone little change.
``They used to sell overalls and fertilizer here. Now it's sardines and pork-and-beans,'' says Butler as he and Maxwell begin to reminisce. ``You can still buy nails and fatback and candy, though.''
As the sun climbs above the treetops, Seymour and his wife, Sally, pump gas, tend the register, and - most important - chat with their friends.
The morning stream of customers slows and Seymour rummages behind the counter, soon reappearing with a well-worn checkerboard which he deposits atop a round wooden crate. After starting a second pot of coffee, Sally, who is both merchant and cordial ambassador to all who enter the store, joins the men. After joking with Maxwell, she abruptly stands up. ``I better go check on Mrs. Brown,'' she says, and moved behind the counter to phone the ailing neighbor.
According to the ``regulars,'' it is this kind of caring and concern shown by the Seymours that keeps people coming back. Many feel their morning stop at the store is as important as their first cup of coffee.
The store building has become a landmark in the town - a place to catch up on town news, meet with friends, and solve the problems of a world that moves a little bit faster than residents here find comfortable.
The building is an unadorned white wood-frame structure, which has housed a wide variety of businesses over the years. A set of narrow stairs at the back of the emporium once led to various small shops. A barbershop, a dentist's office, and a casket factory occupied the second story, now veiled with cobwebs and frequented by birds and various creatures of the night.
``I still have the old pulley they used to lower the caskets down to the carriages,'' says Seymour.
Light filters through the torn window shade of an upstairs window, illuminating dust-covered bottles, empty picture frames, and a broken chair.
A lot of businesses have come and gone, but Seymour's has stood the test of time. The original post office building stands deserted across the street, and a livery stable and a cotton gin once stood proudly beside the store. Hitching posts have been replaced by gas pumps, and the gin was demolished after the boll weevil ended the reign of King Cotton.
Unlike the all-business atmosphere that pervades modern convenience stores, the peaceful ambiance of Seymour's remains a throwback to an era when folks took time to know their neighbors and enjoyed ``just jawing.''
From 5:45 a.m. until 6 p.m., six days a week, a steady stream of locals stops by to buy gas, canned goods, and other items and takes time to discuss politics, cattle, and mutual acquaintances.
On Sundays, Seymour's opens early - but not for business.
``I only unlock the back door,'' says Seymour with a grin.
``Preacher Coggins drops by before church to sit and have coffee with us. It's an unofficial church service for those of us who want to worship, but just don't enjoy the formality of Sunday school.''
Billy Seymour's brother enters the narrow front door, and the talk soon turns to plans for a new store.
He quickly assures the men that - although progress is inescapable - as long as there is a store called ``Seymour's'' there will be straight-backed chairs along the wall and a hot pot of coffee waiting for them.