25.2.06

dateline: POSSUM GRAPE

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A big change is coming to Possum Grape. Mary Wilmans is selling her liquor store after a lifetime of catering to Arkansas hill people and cross-country travelers. It's no lie when Wilmans bills her 67 Liquor store as a landmark in classified ads that list the store for sale. It's half the town's business district and, thanks to a quirk in geography, it's the closest booze option for people in four adjoining counties. "Every single day you see the same people. They're great people, and they're hill people," Wilmans said. "They know exactly how much they're going to spend when they come in here." As if on cue, a man came in with his $14.35 ready, the price with tax for his 30-pack of Milwaukee's Best beer. Located in a town reputed to have been named for local critters that would nibble the fruit of the vine, Wilmans' store is in the western panhandle of Jackson County. The outpost on the edge of the Arkansas Delta serves Cleburne, Independence and White counties and the "dry" portion of Woodruff County. In Arkansas, voters can decide whether their towns will be "wet" or "dry." Wet means someone can buy liquor locally to wet their whistle. When an area is dry, it means a drive across the county line, and sometimes several county lines, to reach an oasis like Possum Grape. "There are people who probably don't want that store there, really," said Jackson County Judge Jerry Carlew, the county's chief executive. Over the years, 67 Liquor has catered to local clientele, travelers along U.S. 67 between Little Rock and St. Louis, and outsiders whose neighbors prefer not to have liquor flow so freely so close. And Carlew said that if 67 Liquor ends up closing, the economic impact likely wouldn't be great. Newport, the county seat 15 miles away, has liquor stores and could likely pick up the slack for customers who travel the ridge from Batesville and Searcy, towns 30 miles away with church-affiliated liberal arts colleges. "I don't think it's a big revenue-getter for Jackson County. People would buy their booze somewhere else, probably in our county," Carlew said. Wilmans said the foundation of the business is people who live nearby -- regardless of the county -- and make the store a regular stop. "I have two big holidays here -- the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. Otherwise, my weeks are almost all the same (financially)," she said. Not even the days before the Super Bowl caused a significant bump in sales. While the business is named "67 Liquor," the store is now on Arkansas 367. U.S. 67 became a four-lane highway decades ago, moving to the east of Possum Grape and, in a way, leaving the town in the past. Gone is the filling station, and the dairy bar has long since been boarded up. There's still a restaurant, but Wilmans said her father bought the tavern that used to be in town and closed it to quell local leaders concerned about late-night drunks. "People were talking about a wet-dry election. We didn't want that to happen," Wilmans said. The store has sidestepped other threats, too. Wilmans said she gave some financial backing to a church-based effort several years ago that was successful in blocking another liquor store from coming to the area. Staying on the main highway, there's not another wet county to the north between Possum Grape and the Missouri border. In the other direction, the next liquor store is in the Little Rock area, an hour south. Wilmans has managed the store herself for the past few years, but had hired managers over the years, as had her late father in the decades he owned the store. Attached to the north side of the store is a house trailer, a relic from when the manager would live on site. "You had to then, when the highway was busy and there weren't security systems like you have now," she said. The two-lane road through Possum Grape remains well maintained and still has a flow of traffic. "We've still got a nice highway through there," Carlew said, "but not like 67. That hurts any little settlement when the highway changes." Giving directions to the store to someone heading from the south, Wilmans said, "It's on the right. There's nothing else on the right." It is clear from the way Wilmans speaks that the business hasn't been a money factory, but she's preparing to retire at 53 and said she'll keep her store on the block long enough to get her price, $225,000. She said she'll miss her customers and that she has some misgivings. But any second thoughts are not overwhelming her. "I want to play golf," she said more than once. "I may move." Is it pleasant to have options? "I'll have options when this store is gone," Wilmans said. Wilmans said she's aware of the social cost of alcohol and said she isn't always proud to run a liquor store. But she was born into the family business. Her father had three stores in northeast Arkansas and Wilmans and her two sisters each got a store after their father died. "I'm playing the cards that were dealt to me," she said. And now she's ready to pull away from the table. Copyright © 2006, Jonesboro Sun

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