It’s the kind of place that makes you feel at home, regardless of where your home may be.
Driving down North Carolina Highway 49 headed south, winding far out into Alamance County lies Bellemont, a quaint little area of Burlington with an abundance of green pastures, farmland and charming southern feel. The drive there melts away stress as visions of lush green fields speckled with yellow buttercups pass by. With the windows down, the scent of freshly cut grass mixed with the sweet aroma of crisp, country air wafts about. A blanket of peacefulness and quiet simplicity envelops the land.
A small, appealing yet unassuming store appears at 3041 Bellemont Mount Hermon Road just off Highway 49. Surrounded by a small gravel parking lot, with neighboring rustic country homes and a church across the street, the blue wooden storefront with the red roof is a pleasantly welcome surprise.
The General Store & Coffee of Bellemont, which opened on December 1, 2011, provides the community with a warm, welcoming atmosphere, local food products and consignment items from local artisans. Plus, there’s a full, gourmet coffee bar. There are tables and chairs, checkerboards and free Wi-Fi for the customers’ comfort and enjoyment.
The building occupies a space that originated as a general store in the 1940s, but evolved into a boat shop, a lawnmower shop and eventually a junkyard. The plot of land is interlaced with the history of the Brooks family that owns and operates the store today.
This eight-member family is headed by Tim Brooks, a daytime mail delivery man with electric blue eyes and a smooth, stable southern drawl, along with his wife Debbie Brooks, a kind, sweet-spoken mother of six with an affinity for raising golden retrievers. They have five daughters and one son, ranging from a 16-year-old high school student to a 34-year-old mother of three young, yellow-haired troublemakers.
The Brooks’ family history is deeply embedded where they work and reside. Their house, a charismatic residence on a vast plot of land with chicken coops and roaming cows, sits at the end of the dirt road adjacent to The General Store. Robert L. Brooks Lane is family property, named for Tim’s father. Their house and the dirt road have strong sentimental ties to Tim, more so than the others.
“He’s lived in this house his whole life except three years. His roots are very deep,” Debbie said of her husband. “He is very local. Very few people can say they’ve lived on the same dirt road their whole life, much less the same house.”
This deeply rooted connection and long-standing history led the family to purchase the old lawnmower shop when it went up for sale, to turn it into something for the whole family.
“My husband’s family, which has nine siblings who all live around here on (either side of) this dirt road, wanted someone in the family to purchase the building because they own all the property from the store back down this way,” Debbie said. “We ended up buying it so it would stay in the family.”
Two of the older Brooks daughters, Valerie and Kim, had the idea to start a coffee shop, but Tim also wanted there to be a little store, kind of like there was when he was growing up. The three of them singlehandedly cleaned out the old place and did all the planning. Over a year, they transformed it from a junky lawnmower shop to what it is today.
“We did everything, all the cleanup ourselves,” said Valerie Brooks, the second-eldest Brooks daughter. “All the painting, and the finishing of the floor. We brought in (Roger Moore) for the internal repairs, and some local people helped paint the roof red.”
Their uncle, who lives next to the property, hand made the wooden, white-painted red-lettered sign out front that welcomes customers to the store, listing select items inside, many of which are locally obtained.
“We can’t say everything is local,” Tim said. “I try as much as I can, but we sometimes have a hard time finding everything at a decent price.”
The ice cream, which comes from the Homeland Creamery in Julian, NC is one of their most local products, and by far the most popular. The eggs come from their own personal chicken coop, and some other products, such as the meats, wines, loose candies, salsas and the coffee beans they brew in-store, are brought in from various individual vendors and distributors throughout the state—some as close as Burlington, others up to a few hours away. The rest of the products come from various distributors in other states, such as the jams and jellies from the Amish in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a lot of work and takes several hours to do the research,” Tim said. Debbie spends a lot of time searching for local products online, but she has found that customers are can be helpful as well.
“Customers have come in and said ‘you should call this person, they sell xyz,’” Debbie said. “I have found that people are very interested in buying local (products). But (those products) are more difficult to find and can be more expensive. You wonder if people will purchase them, so you just have to be committed.”
Debbie has also noticed that people who never thought before about buying local until they saw the variety of local products in The General Store. She enjoys providing these customers with the opportunity to make that choice.
The shop has been bringing in new customers every day while continuing to build its resume of committed regulars.
Retta (Deane) Bingham, a Burlington local, has been going to The General Store frequently since she first discovered it one month ago.
“Friends told me they had seen the sign driving by, and another friend came in and highly recommended it,” Bingham said. “She loved the coffee and the friendliness of the baristas and all the local things. She’s especially fond of the ice cream – she had just sung its praises.”
As a Starbucks barista inside the Burlington Target, Bingham’s work life can get pretty hectic and noisy. She goes to The General Store for the atmosphere, and funnily enough, for their piping hot coffee.
“I always do a flavored coffee, just their brewed hazelnut or something because I enjoy a bold or a medium,” she said, “but it’s nice to get an actual coffee shop brewed flavor without having to add syrup.”
Bingham said she is additionally committed to the store to support the Brooks family. She sees how hard they work and admires their passion and the family atmosphere that it creates. She tries to bring other friends with her to add to the customer pool, but often times Bingham just comes in alone to read or write letters in a peaceful environment.
“I like what they’re doing and I just want to see them succeed,” she said.
The Brooks have received a lot of positive feedback—a good amount from those who have expressed how the store has added something special to the small community.
“Everyone actually really likes our store because it’s a lot different from anything else in the area,” said Emily Brooks, the second youngest daughter. “It’s also nice to have a coffee shop here so you don’t have to go into town to get a cup of coffee.”
But it isn’t always easy.
“I’ve got all this other stuff to do,” Tim said. “I run a mail route, take care of cows and chickens, and then there’s the store. But it’s fun…as long as it pays off in the long run.”
Debbie has found that people truly care about her family’s well-being.
“We’ve made some new friends—people I had never met before that live right here in our community, and now they’re regulars,” she said. “They’ll come in and ask how we’re doing. ‘We don’t want you closing,’ they’ll say. Sometimes I try to cut them a deal, but they insist on paying full price. They want us to make it, and that has been encouraging.”
Each member of the family pitches in. They all spend time working behind the counter, and everyone is expected to do their part.
“We have to get up earlier in the mornings and we’re pretty tired at night,” Debbie said. The store is open twelve hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, and ten hours on Saturdays. They are only closed on Sundays.
“We’ve had people wanting to know if we’ll ever be open on Sundays…but we just have to recognize that we need to have a day where we get a break,” Debbie said.
The family enjoys working together to maintain a place where there is a sense of community value. They provide something more personal for both those who come in regularly and for first-timers.
“You can’t always make money that way,” Debbie said, “but it’s nice to work together as a family. It’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and we don’t always agree on everything, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.”