BETHANY — As the fourth generation of the same family to operate Chambers General Store, Harry Chambers said he has benefited from the hard work of his predecessors.
But it’s clear Harry and his wife of 25 years, Beverly, have done much to keep the family business going.
The pair recently missed a presentation by West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner of several Centurion Awards to 100-year-old organizations and businesses like their own because it occurred around lunch, when the store sells a lot of sandwiches and other food to go.
With an average of 50 sandwiches sold each day there, the Chambers couldn’t pass the chance to serve their regular clientele but stressed they were honored to be acknowledged.
For many years, Chambers General Store has been a fixture on Main Street in Bethany, drawing not only residents of the small town but many students and staff of Bethany College, also more than 100 years old, and workers from various industries that have operated intermittently in the area.
But the business started near the current site of Fairway, a local street nearby, by Harry’s great-grandfather, William Lincoln Chambers, a farmer who came to Bethany from Marshall County.
Harry said his great-grandfather wanted his children to receive a formal education so he set out with his family in a wagon, with two horses, two cows and a calf for the small town where Alexander Campbell had established a liberal arts college of the same name in 1840.
In those days, the journey required two days, and the family camped out at Elm Grove along the way, Harry noted.
Harry said William felt a general store would help to attract other families and the number of students needed to justify a one-room schoolhouse.
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When it opened, it was run primarily by William’s wife, Elizabeth Duffy Chambers, while he focused on their farm.
Like many general stores of its day, Chambers stocked a wide range of merchandise, including food, clothing, tools for farming and other hardware.
“We were Wal-Mart before there were Wal-Marts,” said Harry.
He noted the store sold shoes until the cost for a pair rose to $5, a sum his grandfather, Alfred Lamont Chambers, considered too expensive.
Harry noted it was his grandfather who bought the current location on Main Street in 1934. Built in 1904, it had been occupied by another family-run store.
Alfred perhaps was drawn by the structure’s central location because he described it as “ramshackle” at the time.
“Knowing the frugal nature of my grandfather, it must have been a dump,” said Harry.
But necessary repairs were made and under Alfred’s ownership, the store even employed technology new for its day.
Harry noted Alfred built a walk-in, electric cooler he rented to local residents and Bethany College for the storage of meat at a time when in-home refrigeration was limited.
Completion of the cooler was delayed by the conservation of materials during World War II, but it would be used for many years.
Harry said as a courtesy, college officials continued to pay a rental fee, after it had stopped using it, until 1968.
He said Alfred suffered from health problems, possibly as a result of having rheumatic fever as a child, and died from a heart attack.
It was then that the store was taken over by his grandmother, Agnes McMahon Chambers, who had a bad leg caused by polio.
As a result, Agnes required a lot of help from their three sons: Bill and Dave, who were teens; and Robert, Harry’s father, who was just 7 or 8.
The assistance from the three boys aside, Harry is impressed by the determination of his grandmother in light of her disability.
“The hours she put in were probably astronomical,” he said.
Harry said the involvement of children of various ages in a family business was not unusual.
“As soon as you could help or be in the way, you were expected to work,” he said, noting the family also worked together on a local dairy farm his grandfather had bought in 1911.
Harry said when his father returned from serving in the Army in the 1960s, he turned the farm into a commercial operation that continued until 1984.
When Harry’s grandmother broke her hip, his father and Uncle Bill run the store together.
He said his father often milked the cows on the dairy farm before opening the store, then resumed work on the farm after the store closed. But he was not without help, as Harry, his older brother, Robert Jr., and mother, Charlotte, assisted in bailing hay and other tasks.
After finishing school, Harry left the area for a while and worked for Perdew Farms.
He returned in 2005, teaming with his father to run the store.
“Dad said he would leave when he got in the way. I told him as long as I could learn from him, he could stay,” said Harry, who added he never stopped learning from his father, who died in 2019.
Harry and Beverly also have been aided at the store by their sons, Austin, who now works as a welder-fabricator, and Talon, a zoology major at West Liberty University.
While the store’s stock isn’t as expansive as in its early days, it continues to offer an assortment of food and household products.
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In its meat shop and deli, Harry serves up fresh ground beef and steaks cut to order as well as breakfast and lunch sandwiches and other food for residents, students and others on the go.
“We offered breakfast to go before McDonald’s,” said Harry.
He noted there’s one thing you won’t find at Chambers General Store.
“I would never sell alcohol. It’s not worth it. If any of the college students get hurt, it’s not going to be because Chambers sold them alcohol,” Harry said.
He noted his father and grandfather always opposed selling alcohol while insisting the store remain closed on Sundays, which he also honors.
Maintaining a business in a small college town can be challenging because much of the clientele is absent in the summer and around holidays.
But Harry said he and Beverly have learned to budget around the leaner months.
He added the store also has served a large number of industrial and construction crews that have worked in the area through the years.
While Chambers General Store has never been a true caterer, his father often supplied food for events held by the Windsor Coal Co.
He added the construction of the Campbell Village student housing complex also was a great boon to his parents.
More recently, the store has served workers involved in natural gas drilling.
Harry takes pride in the store’s history. A survey of shelves high above the groceries and other merchandise reveals assorted tools and other items from the past.
Among them is a cash register for which his grandfather paid $1,500.
Such antiques and the building’s own past make the store something of a museum. But though it’s a reminder of the past, it continues to play an active role in the present community.
(Scott can be contacted at [email protected])