Carlton General Store’s closing saddens loyal customers
By Ashley Ahearn
Jeff Lyman leans over the counter and smiles warmly at his customers as they come into the Carlton General Store on a summer afternoon. Lyman, who is affectionately referred to as “the general” by his loyal customers, has owned and run the Carlton General Store for the past six years. This week he announced plans to close the store soon after the Fourth of July holiday.
Lyman said he’s met a “lifelong family” running the general store, but the long hours and low revenues have taken their toll.
“It’s been a struggle to make a living at this. I’m tired and I want to go hang out with my kid,” Lyman said, referring to his daughter, Mina. “She’s 5. I’m not gonna get this time back. We’re going to go climb some hills. We’re gonna go camping.”
Lyman plans to stay in the valley and said he may not sell the building. His priority is to make sure the store is in good hands. “It’ll open back up with the right people,” he said.
Trial by fire
When the Carlton Complex Fire exploded in 2014, the Carlton General Store became the central staging area. Fire trucks lined the surrounding streets and Lyman scrambled to get generators set up to provide cold drinks and food to the firefighters and keep the fuel pumps working.
Some evacuees dropped off their belongings at the store for safekeeping. Lyman put up a bulletin board where people could share information about the status and locations of loved ones.
“I was open for a week straight. I slept here.” Lyman recalled. “People would come in confused, thirsty. Some would sleep here with me. This was a place where people could sit and laugh or sit and cry together. I’ve seen some really cool stuff — people helping one another — and some of the saddest stuff I’ll probably ever see in my life. I’ve watched my friends’ houses burn.”
Lyman’s business took a hit when tourism dropped off after the fire. In the following years his business was affected by nearby washouts and road closures, as well as more wildfires and bad air quality. Then the steelhead fishery was closed, another major blow to his revenues. “I put my head down, but enough is enough,” Lyman said.
A generous heart
The Carlton General Store truly has something for everyone. On the shelves you’ll find everything from kids’ toys to machetes; Spam right alongside organic snacks and crackers; denture cream; WD40; bar and chain oil; and an assortment of drinks — from kombucha to Budweiser.
“Jeff made this an inclusive place with goods for every price point — for land workers and tourists alike,” said Anthony “Twig” Wheeler, a regular customer who’s lived up Texas Creek for 20 years.
Wheeler said the general store, under Lyman’s ownership, “saved Carlton.” Before, locals would have to drive to Twisp or beyond to get goods and groceries. “I come in — sometimes twice a day — to get a hot dog and a little social moment. I don’t know what I’m going to do without this place,” Wheeler said.
Lisa Jenkins, another local resident, described the general store as a “warm place to trudge in on a snowy day, or a welcome Popsicle stop during the heat of the summer.” She said that seeing familiar faces, chatting with neighbors and tourists and hearing the latest local news and gossip made the store the “heart of the community.” And she’ll always remember Jeff Lyman, “ready with a big smile when you walk in the door.”
Lyman looks a bit like a young Jerry Garcia. His bushy beard and curly hair encircle a warm smile that makes anyone who walks through the door feel welcome. He says he’s always had a special soft spot for the local kids. “I’d ask the kids, ‘Hey, ya hungry?’” Some of them were, so he’d give them food, even if they couldn’t afford it.
“I see a kid that’s upset, here’s a toy,” Lyman said. Lyman said his daughter loved all the social interaction and would spend many hours at the store with her father.
“Mina was happy just sitting and reading or counting money, answering the phone: ‘Hello, Carlton General Store … Yes, we’re open until 6. See you soon!’” Lyman said Mina was sad when he told her he was closing the store, but excited to spend more time with her dad. Lyman often worked 80-hour weeks, especially in the early days when he didn’t have assistance.
Lyman said he’s sorry that his decision will make it harder for so many others in his community, but that it was time for him to get his personal life in order and pursue other opportunities in the valley. When he shared the news on Facebook the post garnered more than 250 responses and was shared 50 times.
People wrote in thanking him for his support and service during the fires. Others suggested that he take on a business partner or turn the store into a community-owned operation. Lyman said he’s heard some creative ideas but he’s not sure what the future holds for him, or the store, just yet.
“I wish I had more answers but I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “For now, I’m gonna go to all the barbecues people invite me to that I never manage to get to.”
No matter what, Lyman said he’s devoted to the community that supported — and celebrated — his business over the years.
“My customers are the only reason I’ve lasted this long,” he said. “I love everybody that came through here and I loved serving them.”