Kelly Camp looks back on 35 years at Eagle's Nest GroceryRemembers hand-cranked registers, old-timey gas station attendants
Every once in a while when he gets a break from his steady stream of customers in Eagle’s Nest Grocery, a bustling convenience store on the corner of Eagles Nest Road and Sulpher Springs Road in the Hazelwood area of Waynesville, store owner Kelly Camp likes to peer out the windows and remember what the now busy intersection looked like 35 years ago when he first bought the store.
“There was nothing much around here at that time,” said Camp.
That was 1979 – back when the store had an old-fashioned hand-cranked cash register on the counter, an old credit card imprinter and a high school boy pumping gas for customers and throwing in extra hometown customer service by checking their oil and washing their windows.
Camp has witnessed all that slowly change from behind his familiar store counter –from a guy pumping gas for customers to now customers pre-paying for gas and from a hand-cranked cash register to now a completely computerized system that’s tied to gas and credit cards.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of changes in 35 years,” he said.
Camp first moved from Asheville to Haywood County as a child in 1959 with his mother, Lois Camp, and his father, Dr. Edward Camp, who was a surgeon in Haywood County from 1959 to 1985.
After Camp earned his bachelor’s degree in Russian history from UNC Chapel Hill in 1975, he was working in Atlanta when he heard that Eagles Nest Grocery was available, so he decided to take the plunge and move back home to try his hand at owning his own business.
“I really liked the idea of being my own boss and trying to make a business successful, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll come home and try it,’ and 35 years later, I’m still here,” he said.
Rather than teach history, he decided to be a part of making his own historical mark in Haywood County, and he had that chance that very first year when he, as a brand new young business owner, survived the nation’s historic 1979 energy crisis with the extra-long gas lines.
Even though owning the store has required many, many long hours and sheer hard work especially keeping up with the changing times, he says interacting with the customers has made all the hard work worth it and those faithful customers have kept him going year after year.
On any given day, he jokes with kids as they come into the store sleepy-eyed before school, chats with a customer about their family member’s upcoming surgery, gives countless directions to nearby mountain attractions and listens to the details of a customer’s latest vacation.
In many ways, the store is a second home to him and his customers are like family.
“I saw some of these people in here when they were kids and now I get to meet their kids – that’s how long I’ve been here,” he said.
There’s even a couple of older ladies who have never pumped their own gasoline and, when he sees them coming, he walks outside and pumps their gas for them.
He doesn’t mind, though. To him, it’s a chance to feel like he’s back in time.
Many customers ask about the fascinating photo at the counter of Camp and his wife Paulette pictured with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. That photo was taken on May 5, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio, after Paulette Camp won an online contest to meet the president at his 2012 campaign kick-off rally.
“When we met the president, he asked, ‘Are you the guys who won the contest? How cool is that?’ and then he kissed my wife, and I thought she was going to faint because she is such a big fan,” recalled Camp.
“My impression of both Barack and Michelle Obama was that they were both really nice and down to earth and we would never have thought we were talking to a president,” he added.
As Camp looks into the future of local, single-owned convenience stores, he predicts that they won’t be around much longer. “I think they are all eventually going to be replaced by big corporations and people who own 15 to 20 of them because it’s becoming a hard business to make a living in,” he said.
When he looks back 35 years, does he ever regret the decision to open up his own store?
No, he doesn’t regret it at all because, in the next five years when he plans to retire, he won’t receive a gold watch, but he will receive something much better – the opportunity to run into his hundreds of customers and undoubtedly stop and chat awhile.
He’s had the privilege of a front seat into the real lives of real people in Haywood County.
And, when he thinks about that, he knows he made the right decision to come back home in 1979.