14th Anniversary Stories: Stained glass, scallops and the birth of a Five Star Gas Station

14th Anniversary Stories: Stained glass, scallops and the birth of a Five Star Gas Station

When Jeff and I came to Saxapahaw to take on the General Store in 2008, we regularly questioned our ability to make good choices. The rest of the Upper Mill hadn’t even been designed yet and still our best geographical draw was the fact that we were on the way to the dump. How, we wondered daily, would we ever convert this rural outpost into a center of something — a gathering, not just a pass-through on the way to someplace else? I readily confess I lack imagination, especially back then — so if it weren’t for the more creatively-minded folks who early on made a point of gathering at the store and delivering not only encouragement but ideas, I’m not sure where we’d be today.

For me, one of those key creative persons was Dobs (just Dobs) — a veteran/artist/craftsman/worldly guy who found us (probably on a trash run) right away and started warmly encouraging us to keep going. He even helped us fix up our house in Pittsboro to help us sell it so we could move to Saxapahaw permanently. One evening during one of our first pop-up style dinners (we used milk crates to extend our seating capacity if that gives you an idea of the ethos we had going) Dobs ordered Jeff’s pan-seared scallops over applewood bacon succotash; when he finished his meal, he came to the front of the store and applauded Jeff — who I’m pretty sure then teared up after a fifteen hour day of cooking. He told Jeff he’d not had a better meal in New York. The next day he brought five hand-cut wooden stars, painted goldenrod, drew a plumb line, and affixed them carefully to the glass at the entrance to the store.

We were a five-star gas station.

Pan-seared scallops over succotash, the dish so good, it inspired a standing ovation and the moniker of “Five Star Gas Station” from one of our long-time regulars.

That stuck, as has Dobs’s influence on the store and our community. His artistic work is well-respected, and his stained glass window has hung in our dining area for several years as a little representation of the artistry that lives in our community. A car accident hampered his ability (or so he thinks) to create glass art, so when I asked him about commissioning a piece for our register area, he declined but consented to teach me to make a piece for the space.

The original stained glass window created by Dobs, still next to the booths.

I got to spend last week with him making a large window that now hangs in the store, and now — fourteen years on in our store journey — I received another blessing from Dobs. As we worked, often I noticed my design not going to plan — a piece broke, a measurement didn’t work, we needed more glass — and at each turn, while I wondered if all was lost, Dobs jubilantly exclaimed, “design opportunity!” and pushed me to find another idea. Often the result was an improvement on my original concept; at the end of it, I was really proud of the piece — it’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a map of a process of trying and failing and then trying again, creativity the driving force.

The newest stained glass piece in the store, made by Cameron just last week.

Later, I realized my experience also maps onto our work at the store. By now we’ve had thousands of “design opportunities” in our business, each one pushing us to make a new, often better, choice. And of course, the simplest lessons take the longest to accept: I also realized Dobs’s exclamation, couched as a silly way to accept a mistake, was really a transferrable life lesson in reframing experience to promote process over outcome.

So Dobs has shown up for us yet again as an unwitting mentor and supporter — reminding us not only of the value of creativity in business, but of the vital nature of community. As we worked, we discussed the concept of community — its messiness as well as its necessity (as Emerson said, “solitude is impracticable, and society fatal”). I admitted that humility — the wearing down of the sharp edges of pride that prevent me from seeing things anew — had gone far in helping me participate more productively in community in Saxapahaw. And as I reflect on the ways in which the general store has become part of a village center — not just a pass-through on the way to someplace else — I’m humbled again because I realize that community, including my role in it, is not a thing one can consume or even create on one’s own.

Community is process itself — the very essence of design opportunity — living as potential, never fully realizable, always to be striven for, always imperfect. Rather than the outcome of some past effort, it’s that commitment — the willingness, like Dobs has done, to sit at table and be in process with other people — that creates the identity of a place. That’s what Saxapahaw is, and the general store, to the extent we succeed, is one piece of that — a collective design in the continual process of becoming.