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The Merchant of West End: John McLaughlin devoted his store, heart to Salisbury community

SALISBURY — For more years than he cares to remember — first as a kid stocking shelves and sweeping floors, then for decades as the store’s owner — this was John McLaughlin’s empire.

He would scoff at that word, “empire.” Maybe “home” fits better.

McLaughlin’s Grocery at 1210 W. Monroe St. became a second home for many people in Salisbury’s West End, and still is.

It was where his neighbors knew they could find McLaughlin, called “June” by longtime friends. It was here they vented about politics, sports, religion, food and cars. Military veterans also liked to hang out at the store with McLaughlin.

He was one of them.

You went to McLaughlin’s Grocery to find out who was sick, who was getting married, who died, who was going off to school or who had a problem someone might be able to help with.

McLaughlin often was that guy, giving you advice or a leg up.

His store was a place for keeping the neighborhood informed about voting, registration, meetings, job fairs and other goings-on.

The late Sgt. Mark Hunter of the Salisbury Police Department used to refer to the grocery as “headquarters.”

“When someone needed him, he would tell them to meet him at headquarters,” says John’s sister, Shirley McLaughlin.

Likewise, the late community activist William Peoples called McLaughlin’s Grocery his office, because that’s where he held court and heard what was on people’s minds.

John “June” McLaughlin officially retired in May 2017 and left the store’s operation to a third generation in the family, his nephew Harry McLaughlin Jr. Shirley still works daily at the store, too.

John knows that without his family’s dedication and the loyalty and support of Livingstone College students and the surrounding West End community, the store could not have stayed open as long as it has, since 1934.

Customers still come into McLaughlin’s Grocery for ox tail, pig’s tail, cow’s feet, pork and beef ribs, whole chickens, wings, sausage and chitlins.

They know it’s still the place for deli meats, and often you might hear somebody say, “The only kind I want is June McLaughlin’s lunch meat.”

For decades the store has used the same meat box, scale, chopping block — even the same pencil sharpener.

“When people move away from Salisbury, they come back to the store to make sure things are the same,” says Raemi Evans, a longtime friend of the McLaughlin family.

Generations of neighborhood and Livingstone College kids have popped in for drinks, snacks and sandwiches. And the store has survived the Depression, wars, school closures brought by integration, big grocery chains and the inevitable changes in youth.

“He commanded respect when they came in the store,” Evans says of McLaughlin’s younger customers.

Sagging pants, for example, are not tolerated. There’s a sign that says so.

•••

This West Monroe Street store was born in the Depression, opened in 1934 by James D. Scott, who McLaughlin describes as a compassionate man who cared about his community.

It was a wooden building then, with wooden floors and heated by a pot-belly stove. The two windows in front were covered with shutters at night and bolted shut.

For customers who heated with kerosene, the store had a kerosene pump, selling the fuel for 20 cents a gallon. Much later, the store also would sell Crown gas.

Scott had his share of credit customers who might collect 25 pounds of flour at a time, 10 pounds of sugar, 5 pounds of fatback and 5 pounds of pinto beans. They would use cabbage bags and potato sacks to carry their groceries home.

“Customers always paid their accounts on time,” McLaughlin says. “Burl Smith and Maggie Leazer were lifelong credit customers.”

Scott had one employee, Lucille Avery, working for him back in the early days before McLaughlin arrived on the scene.

“He needed an extra person for odd jobs,” McLaughlin says. “I went to work for him at the age of 10, and Lucille taught me all about the store business. … She enlightened me more about the business than anyone.”

McLaughlin delivered groceries by bicycle. He stocked shelves and swept the floors. Back then, he had to use a sawdust compound mixed with oil to keep the dust down.

Avery eventually taught McLaughlin how to cut meats.

“I was paid $2 a week,” he says.

McLaughlin still remembers the prices of food when he was a boy — a short loaf of bread, 19 cents; a long loaf, 29 cents; eggs, 15 cents a dozen; milk, 49 cents a quart.

Drinks were 5 cents a bottle, and it caused quite a stir when the price went up to 6 cents.

There were other independent businesses (and competition) on the West End — White’s Grocery, Lash Grocery, Miller’s Grocery, Mattie Lankford, Floyd Kerr, Shannon Grocery and S. Williams Grocery.

All have disappeared with time.

•••

Away from the store, McLaughlin also helped his dad, John McLaughlin Sr., who everyone called “Speck,” because of his freckles.

Speck McLaughlin was a custodian at the Post Office at 130 W. Innes St. The building back then included a federal courthouse and, in the basement, military recruitment offices.

“On Saturday, I would go with him to change the recruitment signs,” John says. “Signs would say ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’ or ‘Go Army.’ They had to be changed often, and that was my job.”

Speck McLaughlin and his wife, Ovella, would have three children: John Jr., Harry and Shirley. Speck died in 1951 and soon afterward, to earn money for her family, his widow went to work as a clerk at Scott’s Grocery, She was doing all the same jobs her son did as a youngster, plus running the cash register.

John continued working for J.D. Scott while in high school, but he also had a job with the Salisbury school system, delivering supplies to the schools in the city district. His paycheck ranged from $12 to $15 a month.

At J.C. Price High School, McLaughlin wanted to play in the band, but the cost of a B-flat trumpet at Maynard Music Co. was $84.40. James R. Maynard agreed to sell him the trumpet if McLaughlin would pay him $5 a week.

John recalls he was making $6 a week in his various jobs at the time.

“That was my first credit,” McLaughlin adds, and he paid off the trumpet in roughly 17 weeks.

Over the summers, McLaughlin played baseball for First Calvary Baptist Church, managed by the late Theodore Redfern. McLaughlin made up a battery in which he pitched and the late Fred Evans, Raemi’s husband, caught.

It was an exceptionally good team that often traveled to other towns and cities in North Carolina.

“Segregation existed then, and we were not allowed to stay in motels,” McLaughlin says. “We would arrive home late, around 1 and 2 a.m., after an out-of-town game. Those trips were very tiring.”

McLaughlin graduated from J.C. Price High in 1956. He says he wanted to attend college but didn’t have enough money. Tuition was about $375 a semester, so he decided to take the advice of all those recruitment posters he had put up as a boy and enlist in the Army.

Two days after his high school graduation, McLaughlin began a four-year stint that led him to become a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and gave him a lifelong devotion to the country and its servicemen.

•••

Back in Salisbury, Scott often left the daily operations of the store to Mrs. McLaughlin, who was helped at times by her younger children, Harry and Shirley.

“Mr. Scott was an avid fan of baseball,” John says. “His team was the Salisbury Pirates. He would go to games, leaving my mom to operate the store.”

As years went on, Scott’s health declined, making it difficult for him to keep up with the business. He and his wife, Rose, a teacher at Monroe Street School (later Duncan School), decided to sell the store and offered it immediately to Mrs. McLaughlin.

So in 1958, Scott’s Grocery became McLaughlin’s Grocery. It still had the pot-belly stove, and Mrs. McLaughlin often cooked her family’s meals on the stove top.

Customers would come in, lift a lid off the pan, and ask her, “What are you having for dinner?”

Harry and Shirley came to the store after school to help their mom until closing time, then they would all go home together.

McLaughlin’s Grocery had carryover credit customers from J.D. Scott, and John says they continued to pay their accounts on time. Mrs. McLaughlin never hesitated to help people without food and never expected repayment.

John and Shirley remember the West End community being “very close” then. “Neighbor helping neighbor,” Shirley says.

Ovella McLaughlin worked 12-hour days as the owner, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week.

“She enjoyed working,” John says, “and she would always say, ‘There will never be two days alike at the store.'”

•••

After his time in the Army, John McLaughlin returned to Salisbury to help his mother and go to college with the government’s help.

John had to withdraw from Livingstone after a couple of years and devote all his time to the store, because of Mrs. McLaughlin’s declining health.

Around 1960-61, the McLaughlins moved Scott’s original wooden building to the rear of their lot and built a brick-and-block store of roughly 1,350 square feet to take its place.

That’s the building McLaughlin’s Grocery is still in today.

Around this time, John married Carolyn Dulin, whom he had first met at McLaughlin’s Grocery. They had two children, Lori and John, and three grandchildren.

In 1971, Mrs. McLaughlin suffered a heart attack and retired from the store for good. John took over as sole operator, with Carolyn handling the books.

McLaughlin never took a planned vacation, counting on Sundays and holidays as his off days. His brother, Harry, and sister, Shirley, once filled in for John at the store for six weeks when he had a double knee replacement.

Shirley says John followed in their mother’s footsteps when it came to helping people in need.

“He has been there to support families during illness and death,” she says. “He always tried to encourage the young girls and boys to do something good, to try to make their lives better. He always suggested that if they did not want to go to college, then go in the military.”

A young woman named Willette Swann stopped by the store to see McLaughlin one day, describing her unhappiness with the way things were going.

McLaughlin suggested thinking about military service.

“She took his advice,” Shirley says, “and after 30 years, she stopped by to thank him for the advice. She made the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.”

After close to 60 years at the store and as he approached his 80th birthday, John McLaughlin decided to shift the business to Harry McLaughlin Jr.

“Most people didn’t think he would actually leave,” Evans says.

At home, McLaughlin mows his grass and enjoys watching old Westerns on television. He also takes in plenty of news shows to stay up to date politically and otherwise.

It helps when he returns to McLaughlin’s Grocery, where any topic might come up.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

Shirley McLaughlin and Raemi Evans assisted in compiling information for this story.

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