Lost in the middle of nowhere and found Delina Store
Diamonds are created from pressure, fossil fuels, and eons of time, but in Delina, Tennessee Larry Payne is forming his own diamond in the form of a country store... one day at a time. Sometimes one lost customer at a time. More about that later.
The Delina Country Store is “somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” as tall white-washed letters plainly state on the outside of the historic structure which has been part of the community since 1892.
Now, how Payne came to be its most recent owner is an interesting story. Payne, who has a way with words and a knack for telling stories that often leave listeners laughing ‘til it hurts, sat at one of the tables in the store where patrons chow down on burgers and fries, fried catfish and other fare.
A little more than two decades ago, Payne and his wife, Jeanette, were riding around the countryside of Tennessee during a visit with relatives in the area.
“We got lost so bad, so bad that it wasn’t even funny. We wound up on the front steps of this store and that was 21 years ago. And we got a soda and candy bar and asked for directions so we’d know how to get back to Fayetteville,” he said.
From the front porch, he and his wife, Jeanette, spied a house down the road, a house with yellow shutters and a grown-up yard, but a house that had potential in Jeanette’s eyes.
The conversation went like this, Payne said. Jeanette went first: “Well look down there I could make that house shine again.” Payne’s reply: “I just looked down there and said, ‘Well I could too with a bulldozier.’ ”
Six years later, Jeanette got her wish to bring the old house back into good shape. They bought the fixer-upper. Little did Payne know at that time he would buy more than that house.
Larry spent 21 years in the Air Force working on electronic components and when he retired from active duty, he took sales jobs selling testing equipment for civilian industries. With his genial personality and ability to close a deal he became a successful salesman throughout the south and southwest.
After another two decades or so as a salesman, Larry retired. He and Jeannette had always talked of moving to Utah, where they had good friends, or North Carolina, because they like the countryside, to spend their retirement years. But, then the pair got lost on the aforementioned trip to the country in Marshall County.
“Tennessee was always one of my favorites.” Larry said.
Delina, where the most common sounds on this spring day are from chirping birds perched on powerlines and the mooing of Holsteins at the dairy farm across the road, not so much a town anymore as it is a relic from a time when there were more stores, more people, more activity.
“At one time there were more stores, a blacksmith and numerous churches. It was an active place,” said Jacklyn, Larry’s daughter, who is the manager of the country store. She goes by the nicknmame, “Jack.”
“But sometimes it does get busy. Some nights we have a full house for dinner,” she added. The store serves breakfast and lunch through the week, adding dinner on weekends.
How many people live in Delina is a question often asked. Payne’s got a practiced reply: “The rule of thumb is we don’t know because we don’t know where Delina begins and we don’t know where Delina ends.”
The store has been around since 1892 and was named after Delina Marshall who ran the store when it was first built. Delina Marshall was a part of the Marshall family the county was named after, Payne noted.
Larry’s purchase of the store four years ago created a family business.
Jack, a dark-haired woman with tattoos on her arms and a gentle smile, is the cook and chief operating officer of the business. Her dad, she said, is responsible for keeping the books and providing the entertainment. “If I am backed up on the grill, people don’t seem to care because my dad is telling his story and everyone is entertained,” she noted.
This division of duties came about primarily because Larry took over the kitchen on occasion, with less than satisfactory results.
“He has cooked two times when I was not here and when he checked the person out he told them I will sell this to you on two rules. Number one, don’t ever expect it the same. Number two, don’t tell Jacklyn I cooked it for you.” All of the Payne family is involved in the store. Jeanette keeps the shelves filled with antiques for sale and she painted the giant American flag and the “in the middle of nowhere” message on the side of the building. Jack’s 15-year-old son, Justyn, helps where he can.
Above the front entrance is a sign that reads “Delina Country Stor.” Payne explained his wife ran out of space when painting the sign and didn’t have room for the “e” in “Store.”
“The e is silent,” the store owner said, noting that enough was there for visitors to figure it out.
Payne said the store was not purchased as a moneymaker. He just wanted to see the tradition of a country store live a while longer.
“I’m happy if we just break even.”
But Payne would like the store to be more of a destination than a location people find by accident.
His plan seems to be working. The place is hopping with business at times.
Larry said he gave a friend one of the store’s T-shirts bearing its logo and wore it while on a Mediterranean cruise. When the ship came to port in Portugal the customer was stopped by another American.
“He asked, is that Delina, Tennessee? My buddy said, yeah it is. The guy then said he lives in Delina, not far from the store,” Payne said with a chuckle.
“We say on our menu we are almost world famous, well now we are world famous.”
More recently a British singer filmed a music video outside the store and the store was featured prominently in a British TV reality show that filmed in the community.
People whose relatives grew up in the area seek the store because ledgers from the early 1900s remain intact and Larry lets visitors scan through the pages looking for purchases that relatives might have made.
Larry likes those kinds of conversations. He also likes to make friends and for his visitors to make friends.
“When you come in here you always walk out talking to somebody sometime, most time it’s not who you came with,” he offered.
And frequently, people find the store as hopelessly lost as he was when he first set eyes on the store.
“I started in college before I got into the military as electronics engineer and then wound up owning a little old country store in the middle of nowhere,” Larry said.
Daniel Scroggins is a journalism major at Middle Tennessee State University. He was one of several students who recently spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.