The Last Country Store in Buckhead
Tucked away in the affluent Mount Paran/Northside neighborhood, situated at the intersection of Mount Paran Road and Northside Drive sits a little wood structure that at first glance seems rather out of place. The tiny parking lot bustles with activity, with luxury cars pulling up to fill their gas tanks, kids running in with handfuls of change in search of candy, and numerous lawn care trucks lined up in the shade of overhanging trees. Nearby, a chicken darts across the road, headed to a couple of landscapers who toss bits of tortilla from their lunches.
This is the Mt. Paran Country Store, and it’s one of Buckhead’s treasured hidden gems and a popular spot frequented by neighborhood locals. Open since 1906, the Country Store has a long and interesting history, which even those who pass it on their daily commute might not realize. What is now sprawling residences and manicured lawns used to be farmland, and that’s when the store got its start. Back in the early 1900s, a farmer by the name of Mr. Norman owned the property. Neighbors would stop by to collect their mail and grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, so he got the idea to begin selling his goods, which quickly took off and became more profitable than the farm.
In the years since then, the surrounding neighborhood has evolved from farmland to a community of grand residential houses owned by some of Buckhead’s most successful executives and elite homeowners, including sports legends Dikembe Mutombo and now Matt Ryan who recently moved into the neighborhood.
A Buckhead Staple
Yet, despite all the change around this relic of the past, the Country Store has remained a staple of Buckhead and is championed for its strong hold on its roots. The front of the building is lined with weathered wood and a wagon wheel sits atop a sign that proclaims “Mt. Paran, Est. 1906.” A long porch runs the length of the front of the store, covered by an equally ancient awning. Benches line the wall, with the handrail in front serving as a makeshift table. Two standalone gas pumps flank a large flower box in the center of the parking lot, and a vintage Coca-Cola sign stands proudly at the street beyond a row of bushes. In the adjoining yard, picnic tables provide seating for those who visit the store on their lunch breaks.
Once inside the nostalgia continues. It’s easy to overlook some of the old-school features, as the products that line the shelves are mostly convenience store wares, but if you look a bit closer you’ll notice a few hints of what this shop once was, and what it has been for members of the community in its more than a century-long existence.
Along the left wall near the excess stock of soda and gatorade, for example, one might be surprised to find a closed-off fireplace which is original and dates back to Mr. Norman’s day.
To the left of the front door is a small service window which opens into the kitchen and in front of which sit wrapped burgers and biscuits hot and ready for consumption. Behind the cash register is a vintage Slush Puppy machine complete with rotating cup on top, a favorite treat among local families. Every time a child comes in for their first Slush Puppy, Mr. Pete makes sure to snap a photo with them as a keepsake. “I just enjoy working with the people, especially all the kids” explained Mr. Pete Chevallier, the store’s co-owner for the past 15 years.
Every morning Mr. Pete arrives to the Mt. Paran Country Store at around 5:30 AM to start setting up for breakfast alongside longtime chef Laverne. Together, the two produce around 100 biscuits a day which are then wrapped and set on the warmer for folks to grab on their way to work. As the day progresses, the fare turns to more lunch-worthy dishes, including burgers, Laverne’s famous deviled eggs, and cold dishes like tuna or chicken salad. On a good day, the Country Store sees around 700 customers during their 6 AM to 8 PM business hours with an average purchase clocking in at around $4.
Many people come by for the biscuits and burgers, others stop in seeking refreshments and snacks, and some stop by just for their wine selection. As Mr. Pete explains it, their success is partly due to the support of the neighborhood, Laverne’s culinary creations, and the retro vibe, but is also thanks to the fact that there is no other convenience store, gas station or food source within about four miles of the store. “They call us an oasis,” admitted Mr. Pete.
The space has certainly gone through many changes, but one could say that the store is experiencing a boom in popularity since Mr. Pete took charge. When he first bought the space with a friend back in 2003, the grounds were mostly neglected with overgrown grass, no available gasoline, and no ability to accept credit or debit cards. It has taken effort, consideration, and patience to maintain a steady flow of customers to this quaint little store, and Mr. Pete attributes some of the community’s affection for the shop to its embracing of its roots, and the connection that it brings between Buckhead as we know it now and the Buckhead that it once was.
When asked if he would ever renovate or upgrade the space, Mr. Pete is hesitant, and rightfully so. “Everybody says don’t do it because a lot of people like the old stuff,” he said. “Even if we did remodel, we would try to keep that charm.” Indeed there is a certain charm to the store which is enforced and not diminished by the signs of age throughout the shop. In some places the tile floor has peeled away to reveal dark concrete underneath. Orange extension cords snake across the ceiling, and handwritten signs have begun to curl and fade over time. Mismatched coolers line two walls, full to the brim with sodas and beverages of all types, including Tab, a popular option for customers. Mr. Pete jokes that if he removed the Tab single serve cans from his shelves he would be assaulted, citing the fact that the store is one of the last remaining locations where the fizzy drink is for sale.
And what about the chickens?
As uncommon as it is to find a country store in the middle of the city, it’s also markedly unusual to encounter free-range chickens in the road during your morning commute. Turns out the chickens live at the house next door, but are allowed free reign of the grassy plot of land next to the shop and frequently find their way across the road and into the median. Seeing these feathered fowls is quite a conversation starter, that’s for sure, and Mr. Pete hears a lot of comments about them. “People act like they have never seen a chicken before,” he said wryly, shaking his head.
As we sit together on a bench just under the overhang of the front porch, Mr. Pete gives off a welcoming and warm presence. His kind eyes betray no annoyance at my prying questions, and he doesn’t hesitate to give a friendly nod to folks walking by, chuckling as a customer interjects “tell them the hamburgers are great!” There’s no shortage of good vibes as people come and go throughout the day, everyone being polite and friendly just as one would expect from a true country store, and Mr. Pete responding in kind.
Mr. Pete has been in the food and hospitality industry for quite some time, long before he ever set foot inside the Mt. Paran Country Store. “I’ve been in Atlanta for a long time, I used to drive by it all the time and I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. Originally born in Connecticut, his father grew tired of the cold weather so he gathered the family into a Studebaker Station Wagon and moved them down to Clearwater, Florida when Mr. Pete was 6 years old.
After graduating from college, Mr. Pete was offered a job at Long John Silvers as a manager trainee, but there were not stores near his home in Clearwater so he ended up relocating to Atlanta. He’s been living with his wife Jan in Clayton County since 1979, in the city of Morrow. It’s a long commute every day, but he doesn’t seem to mind, and it’s thanks to his commitment to the store that it continues to thrive.
The Mt. Paran Country Store is a unique establishment in many ways, from the building itself to the business model, and beyond that – the customers. It’s not at all uncommon to see a $250,000 car pull up next to a lawn maintenance truck. Folks in suits and ties open the door for laborers who come in to use the microwave to heat up their food from home at a cost of only $0.25 a pop. It’s a melting pot of cultures, languages, and walks of life. Here everyone is known not by their status or their job, but merely as people; members of the community who all share a common love for this charming little establishment.