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Where bait sells alongside sushi


TODD'S POINT - The potted geraniums on top of the gas pumps out front are the first tip-off: Things are not quite as they used to be. Boxes of 12-gauge shotgun shells now sit on an antique sewing machine. Then, there are the Friday night wine-tasting events that draw 50 or 60 curious patrons.

On weekends, that's sushi in the meat case at John Lewis' Grocery.

The old country store remains at the heart of Dorchester County's marshy Neck District. The shelves at this cultural and literal crossroads for nearly 130 years are always stocked with familiar staples.

Fifteen miles from the nearest supermarket or gas-and-go, the store offers the countryside convenience of milk and bread, cigarettes and beer, bait and tackle. There are necessities such as light bulbs and bug spray.

But as with almost everything in the once-isolated area that points like a crooked finger from Cambridge to the mouth of the Choptank River and the Chesapeake Bay, change has come quickly. The new owners who took over last spring are adapting to shifting demographics.

In the past few years, there has been a surge of well-off newcomers who aren't scared off by spiraling prices for waterfront property or part-time retreats in the country.

For the store's owners - Eastern Shore natives Guy and Robin Willey, and their partners, Richard and Nancy Zeidman of Montgomery County - it seemed obvious to offer the best of both worlds. They set out to appeal to transplants and the second-home crowd without losing the regulars who prefer scrapple at breakfast and bologna sandwiches on white bread for lunch.

"First and foremost, are the locals; it's their store, and that's a given," says Willey, 41. "The weekenders are just that. But if you have people who're used to custom-cut meat or a really nice bottle of wine, a couple big city papers on Sunday, those are people you definitely want in your store."

Willey is planning to add an outdoor deck and a kitchen for hot food. He's promoting the Neck District (so named for its meandering network of waterfront peninsulas) on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Before long, there'll be a Web site.

Grocery's nostalgia

Maybe the best decision, says Willey, was keeping the name. It's still John Lewis' Grocery because the store's namesake remains very much a part of the scene.

Unable to break habits formed in the 57 years that he ran the business, Lewis stops by every morning. Like a dozen or so regulars, he takes his place on the "liars bench" next to the wood stove to shoot the breeze and pontificate about the events of the day. They call it "Lewis University" because that's where people learn the latest gossip.

Willey said he thought of installing a Web cam to capture the conversation but decided that the chatter might sometimes be too salty and nowhere near politically correct.

Lewis usually arrives about 6 a.m. and sits with the regulars who clutch foam coffee cups, 50 cents for short, 75 cents for long. (That's 12 oz. and 16 oz. for the uninitiated.)

"I always just gave away the coffee," says Lewis. "But they're younger people with good ideas. I was at the end of the line, and they're at the beginning."

About once a year, the coffee klatch plays host to former President Jimmy Carter, who hunts geese on a nearby farm owned by a partnership that includes his former press secretary, Jody Powell. This year, the former chief executive sent the Secret Service to fetch Lewis from his home about two miles down the road.

"I've been stopping in here forever, just getting the gossip and the community news," says former waterman David Wheatley, who runs a yacht maintenance business in Cambridge. "I think [the store] reflects what's going on around you. And things are changing around here - more people, more traffic."

Sherry Krewson, who has sold real estate for the past 15 years, says property values in the Neck District have doubled in the past two years, a trend she doesn't see slowing anytime soon. The newcomers, who come from Baltimore, Washington and Pennsylvania, like the slow pace and are keen on the nostalgia of Lewis' store, she says.

"People who have the money don't really care how much it costs to buy privacy," Krewson says.

'A whole new culture'

Gage Thomas, a Cambridge real estate broker whose family once owned the Todd's Point store, says interest in the area was spurred by the arrival of the Hyatt Chesapeake hotel and resort and restoration efforts in the city's historic West End.

"It's good to see what's happening with the store," Thomas says. "It's a really eclectic bunch, a whole new culture down there now."

Ed Middleton, a 60-year-old retired mortgage banker from Ellicott City, counts himself lucky to have been ahead of the curve. After buying 120 acres on Cook's Point Road in 1998, he took an early retirement offer and moved to the Neck District two years later.

"People don't realize how fast things are changing down here," Middleton says. "They're trying to respond to it by going a little more upscale in the store, offering more so the rest of us don't have to go to town."

Willey, who has deep family roots in the area, said he and Zeidman, a real estate attorney who bought a property in the area nearly 12 years ago, came up with the idea of buying the store as they sat in a duck blind.

"The locals laughed at me when I started selling sushi," says Willey, a former waterman who with his wife owns two Italian ice stands in Cambridge and Easton and runs a landscaping business on the side. "But we've got a whole cast of characters down here, the whole core of this community is right here every day."

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