Country store a community gathering place in Oella

With "The Price is Right" on television in the background, and the sounds and smells of bacon crackling in the air, the regulars gather for breakfast at the Oella Country Corner Store on Oella Avenue.

It's a scene repeated nearly every weekday morning in the small store that celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.

Store owner Jay Patel is proud of the community gathering place he's created. It's a far cry from the days when the town of Oella had no indoor plumbing and the Country Corner Store was known for hosting what resident, and corner store regular, Larry Rockenbaugh, called, "a lot of riff raff."

Patel arrived in Oella in 1982 in a taxi cab with his 9-month-old son in his arms.

Searching for a spot to open a business, he was shocked by what he found in the small community nestled between Catonsville and the Howard County border.

"I came up from Ellicott City, and I see all the outhouses and kids taking showers outside," Patel said.

"People were sitting outside (the store) smoking at 9 o'clock in the morning," he said.

Rockenbaugh said kids and teenagers used to loiter outside the store all day drinking and smoking.

Their presence was a powerful deterrent for community members who might have otherwise gone into the store.

Since Patel took ownership of the store on July 9, 1983, the store's atmosphere has taken a 180-degree turn.

"A year or so after Jay got it, he cleaned it up," Rockenbaugh said.

"He came in like Wyatt Earp and cleaned it up," he said.

Patel now stores the cigarettes in the back of the store, hidden beneath a stack of T-shirts in a filing cabinet in the store's back office, away from the register.

Closer to the counter is the store's fully functioning kitchen, which gives the establishment the feel of a diner. There he makes subs, sandwiches and breakfast food for customers.

After his wife died from a stroke four years ago, Patel restructured his menu to exclude salt in an effort to save his customers from a similar fate.

As one might expect in a general store, there is a variety of grocery products, ranging from canned soups to bread to candy.

Patel is proud of the partnership he's created with the J.W. Treuth slaughterhouse down the street. The wholesale butcher shop, an area destination for decades, provides his store with fresh meat every morning. In turn, he provides their employees with some of his popular burgers.

"Most important thing is, holy cow, the cheeseburgers," Patel said. "It melts like a chocolate in your mouth."

However, the road to success has not been easy.

The first six months after Patel took over the store were, "rough and tough," he said.

"It was scary. It was long hours from 7 in the morning to 10 p.m. at night," said Patel, who was shot by two men trying to rob his store in 1992.

But now he's got it down to a science.

"I saw the potential of the town," Patel said. "There were some good things where I could make my living.

"It took time to get used to the locals, and the people and what they needed," he said.

He is known around Oella as "The Mayor," because of the impact he has had there.

Every inch of wall space in the store is covered with photos of residents, drawings and paintings by their children and memorabilia from the town.

In the store Rockenbaugh and the other regulars gather to eat, talk and reminisce.

"It's a place we can congregate and socialize," he said.

"We come in here and B.S. all the time," said Jack Cofiell, another regular.

Patel often leaves Cofiell, Rockenbaugh and the other regulars in the store while he does his afternoon shopping and banking.

"He trusts all of us," Cofiell said.

"Jay, sometimes he'll go shopping around 2 or 3 (p.m.), and we leave the store at 4 (p.m.) and lock the door and go," he said.

Patel is thrilled with the success the store has seen and hopes to continue providing a gathering place for the community.

"What I had in my mind finally worked out like I wanted to after all these 31 years," he said.

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