Visiting the Gentryville Store, Douglas County’s card-playing capital

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The Gentryville Store, located in Douglas County, is believed to be more than 90 years old.

GENTRYVILLE – Howdy-do hellos, waved from passing pickup trucks, prove that Ozarks backroads aren’t only for transportation. Instead, each ribbon-like route offers an experience, one where time often seems to slow — especially when one stops at the Gentryville Store.

The little store, located at the junction of Routes 95 and 14 in Douglas County, was once a one-stop shop for farming families. Nowadays, modernizations have made it easy for people to buzz past, heading for in-town convenience. But “big box” isn’t always better.

After all, folks can’t play cards at Walmart — but they do at the Gentryville Store. As the community’s social center, familiar faces regularly gather around a family-sized table to play a few hands, gab and gossip.

“Every day. Seven days a week,” says Kathy Luellen, who frequently plays Pitch at the store. “It’s something to do, visit, and pass the time.”

Shopping and Pitch fills a recent Saturday morning.

Although Gentryville still marks recent Missouri maps, next to nothing has been recorded about its past — or the store’s history. Some locals, however, believe the business sold its first soda pop in the 1920s.

In those days, Gentryville carried most everything that farming families could want. Roads were bad, and nearby creeks — such as Fox and Bryant — could make travel to town troublesome. The small stores, dotting the Ozarks, helped keep customers close to home.

One person who recalls those days firsthand is James Luellen, Kathy Luellen’s brother, who grew up close by. “I was born down on Bertha Road there,” he says of a nearby route. “I wasn’t a hospital baby. My dad delivered me.”

As a child, Luellen frequented the store with his 11 siblings. “We came up and got ice cream, feed and all kinds of stuff,” he says.

These days, the 72-year-old still frequently visits the store — but it’s because he’s the owner. He acquired the business in 1985, following years away from the Ozarks for family, work and the military.

“I just drove by one day and I thought, ‘I’d like to own that store,'” he recalls. “Sure enough, I got it.”

James Luellen purchased the store in 1985.

Luellen’s made some changes since acquiring the business. “Well, I painted it camouflage and left it that way for several years,” he says. It stayed that way until a man came by, needed a job, and repainted it white.

“I don’t like it,” says Luellen of the building’s current color. “I wish I’d left it camouflage.”

Other differences reflect changing times.

“Used to have gas, but we don’t have that any more. Used to sell hunting licenses and all that, but we don’t do that any more. Used to make hamburgers and all that stuff, but they don’t do that any more,” says Don Haymie, Kathy Luellen’s other half, from his perch behind the cash register. The couple helps Luellen run the store, often opening it around 5 a.m. to serve early-to-rise dairymen on their way to work.

“It’s every day of the week, 365 days of the year,” says Haymie.

The Gentryville Store primarily sells a variety of snack items and sandwiches.

The gas-price sign is still outside.

And instead of things like gasoline — which was eliminated in the 1980s due to changing EPA regulations — the store primarily sells homemade sandwiches, a few household items and quick-grab foodstuffs such as cakes, soda pops and potato chips.

“It’s a big old snack bar, mostly,” Luellen says.

But despite the changes in wares, the store’s status as a social hub hasn’t changed. Locals — a few who live close enough to walk to the store — drop by daily, some staying for the aforementioned Pitch marathons, as well as other card games.

“We play Poker when we’ve got any money,” says one the card players.

In days past, the store also saw many music parties and karaoke nights. “Sometimes, they’d go until four in the morning,” says Luellen. On those days, he wouldn’t even go home before opening the store at 6 a.m.

That period has passed, as have the store’s pool-playing days. Luellen took the table out because there were “too many drunks” who came by.

“I’ve got it kind of how I like it now,” he says. “Not very busy.”

The store’s slow pace allows for it to double as Luellen’s art studio. Luellen began dabbling in paint back in the 1970s, and today, his work lines one of the store’s walls. He even still has his very first painting, a yellow-tree landscape, for folks to see.

“I got it off of an insurance card,” he says of his first work. “They sent me a Christmas card, so I decided to paint (it).”

Luellen began painting in 1977. Today, his works of art line one of the store’s walls — including two of his first paintings (below).

Where Luellen works.

Another early painting — featuring an African woman — was inspired by a photograph in National Geographic. These days, he stores photos on his phone for inspiration — but he does things a bit differently to avoid legal concerns.

“What do they call that? Plagiarize,” he says. “So I’ve got to be careful about doing that. I change them all around now.”

Inspired by artist Bob Ross, Luellen utilizes the “wet on wet” technique and paints whenever the mood strikes him. “I don’t like doing requests,” he says. “I just like doing what I like, and if they like it, fine.”

And if folks like a painting, he’ll sell it to them for $75. “(It’s) somethin’ to do,” he says. “Pays for the paint.”

Part of the store’s rock collection, complete with one honoring Fred Flintstone.

While the store building isn’t that old — it was built after the previous one burned around 1980 — aspects about it remind of other times. One is a rock collection, sitting on a shelf, has been decades in the making.

“My dad found that big rock there,” says Kathy Luellen. “I think it’s a dinosaur footprint myself.” Another, she decorated to look like cartoon character Fred Flintstone.

A bell from the nearby Bertha School, once a one-room affair, sits on a counter. “I put ‘Ring for Service’ on it,” jokes Luellen, and voices his affection for one-room schools, which he attended as a child.

“I think the country schools was the best way, though,” he says, comparing them to reorganized districts. “All the older kids taught the younger kids. If (younger kids) had a problem, (they’d) run up and ask them.”

But the area is changing: Time has taken things besides the one-room schools, creating lasting change in the rural area. Luellen notes that most of his parents’ generation is gone; other rural stores have disappeared, including one in particular that closed after he bought the business.

“They said, ‘Well, your competition closed,’” recalls Luellen, a sentiment he disagreed with. “I ain’t in competition with nobody. I’m just having fun.”

Don Haymie works the cash register at the Gentryville Store. Note the school bell at right.

Such feelings are why he isn’t too worried about the store’s future. “I’ve got my Social Security if I need it,” he says. “This don’t make any money. Never did. I paid it all out in interest when I borrowed the money to buy it.”

Then why does he continue?

“What else would I do? The same with them,” he says, referencing the local card players. “Nothing else to do except get in trouble.

“I can do what I want to do. Meetin’ people and talkin’ with them.”

Want to visit the store?

The Gentryville Store is open seven days a week from around 5 a.m. until around 5 p.m. The Google Maps app will take you right there.

One thought on “Visiting the Gentryville Store, Douglas County’s card-playing capital

  1. Wonderful memories here visiting family, and eating home made sandwiches. Everybody should stop in play some cards, shoot the breeze and enjoy the Ozarks and the people who keep it real. Love ya all.

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