With a blizzard in the forecast a few winters past, the Graceton Shurfine Market in northern Harford County was crowded with shoppers.
Lines of buyers extended from the cash registers at the front past the frozen food section and all the way to the rear of the store. There were no empty shopping carts available when drivers pulled into the parking lot off Route 136.
But as general manager Charles Tarbert surveyed the scene, he didn't see angry, impatient faces.
Instead, customers waiting in line were chatting. People were helping strangers load bags of groceries into their car trunks so that they could get a shopping cart.
"What I've seen in this store I've never seen in other stores," Mr. Tarbert said. "It's something I think people will never see in a bigger chain store in the city."
It's not uncommon for customers to meet friends and family members at the store. And, since the business hires from the community, the cashier might be the customer's next-door neighbor or an acquaintance from church or school.
"We're not the huge supermarket of the city," Mr. Tarbert said. "We advertise as a friendly country supermarket."
Nestled at routes 136 and 624, at a crossroads once called Graceton, the family-owned business attracts shoppers from Whiteford, Cardiff, Street, Pylesville, White Hall, Norrisville, Dublin, Darlington and other towns along the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.
"Whenever we need something, down to Graceton store we go," said Patricia Kelly, 61, of Whiteford. "For us, it's convenient. And the people are so friendly, pleasant and very accommodating. That means an awful lot today."
Her daughter, Laura Taylor, 35, also of Whiteford, said, "The owners are very community-minded. They give donations, let groups have bake sales outside and help the fire company."
Stocked with 27,000 items, the Graceton store sells beer, wine and liquor, deli and dairy products, meats, bakery items, produce and bulk foods to customers who would have to drive to Bel Air, Shrewsbury Pa., or Stewartstown, Pa., to find a bigger market -- all more than 10 miles from the Graceton Market.
"The people here, they're almost family," said Katherine Mitchell, 88, of Fawn Grove, Pa. "They're all courteous, and I like the little store. You can find what you want without going through too much of what you don't need."
"It's a friendly store," said her daughter, Ethel Lenzi, 58, also of Fawn Grove. "If you need something, they'll order it for you. Everything is just very handy, and you don't have to walk that extra mile. It's not worth your trip to go anyplace else."
The Graceton Market has been something of a landmark in the area for about 25 years. It remains a familiar sight at a county crossroads where there is little else but cornfields.
"A lot of directions have been given out using this store as a landmark," said Mr. Tarbert, 26.
His parents, Pat and Margaret Tarbert, 61 and 59, respectively, built the original 6,000-square-foot section of the store on 5 acres in the early 1970s after buying and running a general store down the road for a few years. In 1979, they added 14,000 square feet.
Pat Tarbert comes to work almost every day despite having Parkinson's disease. He is usually seen riding a motorized cart in the store. "I like being around people," he said.
"Being in the community for so long, my dad has seen half the kids around here grow up," said Charles Tarbert. "And I've been here since day one. When I was first born, my mother pushed me around in a shopping cart in the original store. And I can remember riding in the dump trucks when this store was built. This is home.
"We've grown as the area has grown."
The staff has increased from an original crew of 15 or 20 to about 65. And in 1994, a second store was opened in Stewartstown.
With its blue, corrugated-metal siding and steel-gray metal roof, the prefabricated building could almost be mistaken for a warehouse by passing motorists.
"We were looking to provide a service," Charles Tarbert said. "We thought we'd be better off building an affordable building. Otherwise, our prices would have to be higher to cover the overhead. We're more concerned about what we do inside."
Efforts continually are made to modify and improve the store, he said. A courtesy counter was built recently, and the computerized register system is being expanded so the store can stock more items. Departments are moved from time to time to keep up with growing numbers of new products.
"We would like to expand sometime," Mr. Tarbert said. Still, he is aware that the relatively small size of the grocery store is part of its appeal.
"A lot of senior citizens like us because we're not real big," he said. "They can't walk a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot store, but they are able to walk ours. And some people have shopped here so long they know where everything is."