STILL POND Life isn't the same at the historic center of this Eastern Shore community since the loss of the chief social media: the post office and convenience store, both housed in a late 19th-century building badly damaged by fire last fall. It was the sort of place where you could usually figure on bumping into a neighbor, and sometimes also his pet chicken.
"If we didn't have e-mail, if we didn't have the phones, we'd have the post office" and the combination deli counter, coffee shop, gas station and chat lounge that was the Market at Still Pond, said Kate O'Donnell, who lives near the five-corner crossroads about 10 miles north of Chestertown.
"It was like a community center," said Patricia W. Deitz, who, like many of the neighbors, moved to Still Pond from elsewhere in the last 20 years. She remembered how her daughter and other local young people would mark school dances and other dressy events by having their pictures taken in front of the store.
Neighbors in this enclave of artists, craftspeople, professionals, entrepreneurs and farmers have been on edge lately, trying to pool their ideas and perhaps their money to revive what they consider the heart of a village of some 75 homes and businesses that became a National Historic District in 2009. They say they feel compelled to do something soon, as the owners who are trying to sell the place were just granted permission to demolish the building, and will be free to do so after a review period ordered by Kent County ends on March 21.
The white, two-story wood-frame building has not been condemned, but it's in tough shape, with the two front windows masked in plywood, the back end charred, and some siding peeling off. The whole building is ringed with yellow tape marked "FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS." The blaze started during morning business hours on Sept. 28 in the electrical system in the back, leaving the structure intact but the inside charred and damaged by smoke and water.
The building is "an eyesore in the heart of the quaint village," Conrad J. Langenfelder, a Kennedyville resident who owns property nearby, wrote in a letter to the county supporting the demolition permit application.
"We can't afford to fix it," said Edward A. Price, an Eastern Shore grain farmer who bought the store with Nancy Ziolkowski in October 2009 for $265,000; they're now listing the property at $150,000. "I would love for someone to come along to buy it and then restore it."
Ziolkowski agreed, saying she decided to apply for the demolition permit last month "to keep our options open." She said she's in no rush to see the building razed.
The neighbors are not keen on some new convenience store going up on the spot where the building has stood since George Washington Covington started running a general store there around 1870. A store record book that one of the neighbors bought in a yard sale shows Covington noting sales for a wide array of items, including prescription medicines marked in ink with "Rx."
On Sept. 9, 1871, the notes show, one customer bought a half-pound of saltpeter for a quarter, the same quantity of mustard seed for a dime, and a pair of shoes for $2. Another bought some muslin and calico fabric, a pair of shoes, shoestrings and some pencils. Covington also noted sales of linseed and cod liver oils.
County records show the place has changed hands eight times since Covington's day, most recently sold to Price and Ziolkowski by Larry and Gerry Penn, who ran the place for years and are remembered for their signature warmth, humor and informality.
Walter Bowie, who lives right down the street from the market, recalled that his family's pet hen, Shadow, would often wander the neighborhood and strut into the store, where she found the handouts of potato chips and Doritos an inviting relief from the usual chicken feed.
"It really was an old-time store," said Bowie. "It was worn out in that old Eastern Shore kind of way because things weren't fixed up. But it was welcoming at the same time."
The smell of frying bacon and brewing coffee filled the store in the morning, as Ziolkowski opened at 5 a.m. for the mechanics and farm workers who made up much of the regular early crew. She had the place open seven days a week, carrying on the Penns' practice of making overstuffed sandwiches and subs, and kept the cluster of mismatched chairs for customers to sit and talk. She remembered five chairs, neighbors said three.
"I miss the store," said Ziolkowski, who is now working at a family farm near Still Pond. She said she missed the people and the sandwiches.
"People would come from all over for the subs and I miss making them, hearing they liked them and they were happy," she said.
A partition separated the store from the Still Pond Post Office, which had a separate entrance. Postmaster Joyce Manley presided for many years as a "kind of a mother confessor, or a bartender," O'Donnell said.
Residents now have to pick up their mail about five miles away in Worton, and the nearest convenience store is three miles away, Bowie said.
Gerald McKiernan, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said no decision has been made about reopening a post office in Still Pond.
Still Pond resident Mary Fielding said a man to whom she rents a house has had difficulty getting work as a handyman and day laborer since the fire. The market was always the place he would go to find out who needed a hand, or where people would find him or leave a message for him when they needed help, she said.
Resident Jim Herron said in an e-mail that, "I got to thinking of all the people I haven't seen since the fire. There were always those people who your only contact was when you saw them at the store."
Bowie said about 15 neighbors are trying to find a way to save the store. They're working with a lawyer to incorporate as a nonprofit organization that could buy the building, and are offering free labor to any prospective buyer.
"There's been so many people in the community that do not want to see the store go because of the historical" value, Ziolkowski said. Kent County has a program that allows owners of historically significant property to apply to have their buildings protected from demolition as landmarks, but Ziolkowski said she wouldn't want to do that, "not with me having the place for sale."
There's been no formal estimate of what it would cost to repair the damage and bring the market up to code, but Price said a friend of his who knows something about building renovations said it would be "major, major, major money."
No one's come up with money so far, although the real estate agent handling the sale, Dave Leager, said he's had five or six inquiries since the place was listed on Feb. 2 — one from a fellow who wanted to tear the building down and start over. Leager figures that would be much less costly than renovating it.
As the building is in a National Historic District, the new owner would probably be eligible for 20 percent federal income tax credits on the renovation cost, and could also compete for an additional 20 to 25 percent state income tax credit, said Collin Ingraham, of the Maryland Historical Trust. That agency administers federal historical preservation programs run by the National Park Service.
"All of us have found a wonderful home and environment here," said Deitz, who moved to Still Pond from the Washington suburbs. "Someone could take that store and make a wonderful life out of it."