Elizabeth and Alex Albright: Owners of R.A. Fountain General Store
by Leanne E. Smith
Alex Albright says he is a person who has enjoyed the accidents in his life. A turn he didn’t intend to take on his way back to Greenville from Wilson one day in the mid-1990s was one of those accidents. He found himself in Fountain, NC, where US 258 and NC 222 momentarily become Railroad and Wilson Streets and cross at the town’s one traffic light. On the northeast corner of the intersection, he saw a For Sale sign on the eighty-year-old Smith-Yelverton building, which had been on the market so long that the realtors had given up sales promotion a dozen years before. Upstairs in the 110 by 35 foot space, Alex saw sunlight flooding from tall windows across “the most gorgeous sight—all that old wood.” He thought, “If the roof is okay in this building, then my life is going to somehow change.” And it did.
At that time in his life, Alex was in transition. From Graham, NC, he had majored in journalism/English at UNC-Chapel Hill, received a Master of Fine Arts from UNC-Greensboro, and started teaching at East Carolina University in 1981. He founded the North Carolina Literary Review in 1991 and served as editor until 1996, just before his backroad ramble to Fountain. He and Elizabeth Edgerton Albright, who was from Chapel Hill and had majored in business administration at ECU, had been married for a few years, and they had thought about moving out of Greenville to a smaller town, but had not yet done so. Alex had some recent inheritance from his father and felt using the money on a tangible project would be a good, identifiable use for it. Buying the Smith-Yelverton building could be that project and a step towards living in a small town.
In 1999, Alex and Elizabeth’s son Silas was born, and they wanted a slower-paced place for him to grow up “where the yards weren’t quite so small” as Alex said. With a population of less than 500 and an elevation of just over 100 feet above sea level, Fountain is today more than 200 times smaller and twice as high as Greenville. In 2001, the Albrights moved into an older house formerly owned by the Fountains and started planning to open a business. Two years later, the R.A. Fountain family decided to sell the old R.A. Fountain General Store, the next-door twin of the Smith-Yelverton building. R.A. Fountain had built both in the 1910s, and Alex and Elizabeth bought that one, too. Then, inspired by general stores in Bynum, Pittsboro, and Valle Crucis, the Albrights had a clearer idea of what they could do in and for the community: re-open R.A. Fountain’s old store to bring residents back to the town center.
In their time in the 100-year-old town, they had seen it was one of those places that had a ghost past—a history of an active time when the East Carolina Railway ran through the town that was twenty miles from Greenville, Wilson, Snow Hill, and Tarboro—and seven general stores competed in one block. Well-to-do residents could afford education for their children, but then the children didn’t return to sustain the town that Farmville Enterprise writer A. Frank Eason had described in 1917 as “the biggest little town in the State.” Well within a century of its founding, Fountain was quiet. It was one of those places people pass when they “drive through Eastern North Carolina,” as Alex told Rocky Mount Telegram writer Fred Marion in 2005, “It’s been my experience that people miss a lot by taking those big four-lane roads hell-bent for the beach.” Alex described himself to Marion as “a writer who appreciates all kinds of things that don’t make best-seller lists—things that struggle to be seen.” To him, the R.A. Fountain building “seemed to say it needed to have people in it again.”
Yet, after the music-filled RAF grand opening in 2004, the quiet returned. The store had some visits from older residents who liked talking about the town’s active days, and sometimes it seemed like the Albrights were taking in more stories than dollars. Eventually, they decided the place needed to be, not a daily store, but an occasional music venue—a social place for both artist and audience. In the first four years of business, gas prices doubled, which meant that the town’s location between other population centers—“smack-dab in the middle of everywhere,” reads the RAF website—was less of a convenience than in the town’s early years. Prices dropped, but have steadily risen again. Still, the space Alex and Elizabeth, the artists, and audience have created has survived almost a decade. RAF today is a combination of antique store, bookstore, music store, cafe, and concert hall, with salvaged church pews and theater seats, and a varied collection of chairs. The rolling ladder for stocking shelves are still there, now with the mostly local current stock of music recordings, NC-authored books, jams and jellies, honey, homemade ice cream, glass-bottled sodas, and crafts.
Alex says, “It’s doubtful that R.A. Fountain, the town’s founder, had any idea he was constructing a music hall…but the high ceilings and cross beams and warm wooden floors make…an especially outstanding venue for acoustic music.” A lot of the charm comes from what Alex and Elizabeth have not changed in their efforts to bring life to the space. As eastern North Carolina music artist and businessman Clyde Mattocks says, “Sometimes you can create something worthwhile by simply preserving something worthwhile. That’s just what Alex and Elizabeth Albright have done with the old R.A. Fountain General Store. By just not messing with it, they have given us a delightful oasis in which to experience sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that were a part of a treasured past. Not to be confused with a museum, it is a great place to enjoy non-mainstream music that would otherwise not have a venue. A trip to this unique place makes you quickly realize that it is a labor of love for these people.”
What Alex says he and Elizabeth enjoy most is “the variety of exceptional talent we’ve discovered in the region, and the opportunity to give those performers a stage on which to play.” They strive to “live local and promote local.” In addition to giving locals a stage, they also bring acts from elsewhere in and out of North Carolina to make them accessible in the area—“such high profile players as Don Dixon, Kate Campbell, the Red Clay Ramblers, Alice Gerrard, John Dee Holeman, Mike Compton, and our own local hero, Lightnin’ Wells,” Alex says. Lightnin’, who lives outside Fountain and frequents the store, is at once a local favorite and an internationally appreciated blues artist. In the Spring 2011 edition of the N.C. Arts Council’s “Artful Living” e-publication, he named R.A. Fountain as one of his favorite N.C. venues for live music.
Award-winning poet Shelby Stephenson agrees. He occasionally performs there with Linda, his partner in music and marriage. Shelby says he’ll “come running anytime to perform there as a singer or as a poet (which come to me as one and the same). I feel at home there. I feel endorsed when I’m there. R.A. Fountain General Storeis an open place, as my poems of home and the world (hopefully) are open and accessible to listeners to hear and tune in to, and make their own music. That’s what RAF does for me. Just consider what Alex and Elizabeth do. Their pulses come alive with the things that matter (to me) in this world. They take what is given and give all that treasure back to the world.”
N.C. writer David Cecelski also observed that giving-back aspect in 2008 on his first trip to RAF. He wrote soon afterwards for the NC Folklife Institute’s blog that RAF is “now one of my favorite places in all of North Carolina. Alex and Elizabeth Albright are celebrating a region’s culture, revitalizing a small town, and building a community.” The segregation of different generations is a significant factor in interruption of community and culture, but at RAF generations mingle. Alex told the Greenville Noon Rotary Club in 2008 that at RAF, “You get three generations of people in the building at the same time. It’s a pretty remarkable thing. You get that in a mall, but the old people are together, and the kids are together, and the middle-aged people are together. Everybody’s got their group. It’s incredible to see that [mixing] when people bring their parents and their children” to RAF.
Facilitating intergenerational interaction to a local soundtrack at RAF is just one of several community-building traits worth honoring. Music can happen in homes, but with so many modern-day options for entertainment via technology, learning and playing music in a shared physical space with family and friends doesn’t always seem as attractive a choice as it used to be for many people. As an accessible venue to share one’s music with the public, though, RAF provides a reason to practice, a place to play, and a potential forum for drawing new musicians to styles they may not otherwise have been attracted to without that human interaction.
While genres at RAF vary to include even a group of young rockers from town, the Albrights have found that bluegrass is especially popular and have a line of bumper stickers that reference it, including “Bluegrass Jams & Preserves,” “I Pick; Therefore, I Am,” and “Pick Where You’re Planted.” Half of the “pick where you’re planted” pun describes Alex and Elizabeth’s lives: they have chosen to be rooted in Fountain. While Elizabeth works part-time in admissions at the Brody School of Medicine, and Alex still teaches at ECU in Greenville, the family is active in Fountain Presbyterian Church, where Silas is an acolyte. Elizabeth volunteers at the Fountain Wellness Center, a satellite of the Pitt County Council on Aging, and Alex is a town commissioner.
Alex and Elizabeth have revived and enhanced a vintage space, served as enablers for N.C. music practitioners, and given musicians and listeners a place to go and be. The audiences may not be rowdy, but their presence, and their tapping feet and nodding heads, show they appreciate RAF. Cars park on Main Street again, and on concert nights, there are now lights on in at least two buildings downtown—the Smith-Yelverton antique display windows and throughout R.A. Fountain General Store. The Albrights’ contribution to Fountain and N.C. folklife is circular, yet also straightforward: by sustaining a piece of the community, they have provided a means for the community to sustain a few pieces of itself.
Cecelski, David. “R.A. Fountain General Store.” NC Folklife Institute. 3 April 2008. NCFI.
8 Aug. 2013. http://www.ncfolk.org/r-a-fountain-general-store/
Marion, Fred. “Venue is Much More than Store, Café.” Rocky Mount Telegram [NC]
24 March 2005. http://www.rockymounttelegram.com
Postma, Jake. “Alex Albright Talks About the R.A. Fountain General Store.” Online video
clip of Albright’s address to the Greenville, NC, Noon Rotary Club on July 14, 2008.
YouTube. 27 Jan. 2013. YouTube. 8 Aug. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsa-ldZrG8w
Quillin, Martha. “Fountain of His Dreams.” News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] 2 Oct. 2005: D1.
America’s News. Joyner Library, Greenville, NC. http://infoweb.newsbank.com
R.A. Fountain General Store & Internet Cafe: http://www.rafountain.com
Leanne E. Smith received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She teaches at East Carolina University and is the Assistant Editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal.
Smith, Leanne E. “Elizabeth and Alex Albright: Owners of R.A. Fountain General Store.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (2012): 4-9.