By Scott Robertson
The press release said it happened in Elizabethton, but don’t be fooled. Governor Bill Haslam didn’t go to Elizabethton to celebrate the passage of the IMPROVE Act and its one-cent-per-dollar drop in grocery taxes. If you wanted to shake the governor’s hand last Thursday, you drove out Highway 91 from Elizabethton a ways past the Hinkle Branch Trailhead up Stoney Creek.
That’s where you find Fletcher’s Store. There’s no sign out front to let you know you’ve arrived. People just know that the old river stone building with the bright red awning is open for business, as it has been for 94 years.
Mr. A.D. Fletcher opened the store, which became the center of commerce for the Stoney Creek community, in 1923. He passed it along to his son, who goes by “Sonny.”
Sonny smiles a lot. That’s one of the first things that strikes you. There are three pictures on the wall behind the counter. The one on the left is A.D. Fletcher. The one on the right is John, who’s ready to take over when Sonny retires. They flank smiling Sonny.
A decades old filing system with individuals’ names and receipts sits behind the counter, off to one side and out of sight. Old timers will recognize the system for allowing regular customers to buy on credit. Not plastic credit, just “word is bond” credit.
Sonny is protective of the business his family built and of the people in it. Within easy reach of the cashier is the kind of state-of-the-art security system one might expect in a near-century-old building. It won’t send a text alert or call the cops if a bad guy shows up, but if someone were to decide to try to rob Fletcher’s Store, it would ruin their whole day.
A security team had run a sweep of the store the day before the governor’s appearance. If they saw the “security system,” they decided not to say anything about it. After all, the Fletchers are, as Sonny says, “Republicans’ Republicans.” Sonny Fletcher represents a threat to Bill Haslam’s safety in the same way Fletcher’s Store represents a threat to Pilot/Flying J Travel Centers’ market share.
That, one suspects, is why Haslam chose Fletcher’s store for his IMPROVE Act victory lap. By travelling from Nashville, which has just south of 300 grocery stores, to a community of fewer than 2,000 people, and by using a tiny country store as a backdrop, Haslam pointedly told rural Tennesseans, “this tax cut’s for you.”
As he prepared to leave, the governor appeared to realize he really should buy something. So he picked up a 69-cent packet of cheese and crackers. Sonny had suggested the governor try one of the hot dogs – “the best in the county” – but the governor declined. Sonny’s smile never wavered. He offered the crackers to the governor free of charge, but Haslam said, “Ahhh, I’d better pay.”
So the governor, whom Forbes says has a personal net worth of $2.6 billion, handed over a fiver and took his change. The tax cut saved him almost a penny.
Yet in buying that small item, Haslam made his point better than he had in his public remarks a few minutes prior. This tax cut isn’t for Whole Foods customers in Nashville. It’s for the people like the ones whose names can be found behind the counter at Fletcher’s Store in Stoney Creek.
And the flight back to Nashville took less than an hour.