A former country store that served a northwest St. Johns County community for decades will have a new life as a market.
Andrew’s Homestead will open on Dec. 1 in the same building that used to house Hartley’s Store, a grocery store in the Switzerland community. The business will be the new name and location of Fresh Start Veggies, run by Andrew Piezzo.
Built in the 1930s, Leonard and Evelyn Hartley took over a store in the building some time later and ran it until the 1990s, when Leonard died. They also raised their children on the property.
Switzerland residents shopped at the store for staples such as meat and cheese and extras like chewing gum and Coca-Cola. Some people would stop by to catch up with the Hartleys and hang out on the porch for awhile.
In 2015, St. Johns County designated the building a local landmark, citing its history as a country store — such stores “played a central role in the South’s historic rural economy, commerce, politics, and lifeways,” according to the county.
Carolyn Bernath, a niece of the Hartleys, and her husband bought the property from her cousins.
“There’s a lot of memories in this place, that’s for sure,” said Bernath, who remembers visiting the store as a girl.
One of her cousins and one of the Hartley’s daughters, Annette Holley, said in 2015 that the family wanted the building to be a store again.
More than a year later, the dream is ready to come to fruition.
On Monday morning Piezzo placed barrels of apples on the walls and stocked shelves. Bernath put okra into little baskets.
The store has undergone a transformation, with some of old fixtures kept in place. The Hartley cash register sat near a window, topped with a few miniature white pumpkins. The front porch has some new pillows and decor. The door of the old icebox has been repurposed as the bathroom mirror.
Piezzo had a soft opening just for his regular customers on Monday. Shelves, walls and coolers were were stocked with tomatoes and cucumbers, grits and honey, jam and squash, barrels of apples, tea, chocolate milk and cream and other goods.
Piezzo, who was a chef in St. Augustine for 10 years, had been planning to leave the area before he took over Fresh Start Veggies. At the request of customers, he’s added things to his inventory beyond fruits and vegetables, like honey and rice and sauces and jams — even candles.
“The store kind of took shape around my customers … then before long this place went up for sale, and here I am,” he said. “This store was such a big part of the community and the people around here, and now it’s just a perfect fit because I’ve molded my store around my customers.”
He says he likes to use items from local businesses and farmers and has big ideas for the site and himself — he plans to stay in the community. And he has ideas about why people are still interested in buying produce from a local market.
“Just buying locally you get something more flavorful, but it’s also that sense of community, the owner knows your name,” he said. “That could be just as big as the fruit itself.”
Having a country store opening again has been generating a lot of interest, Bernath said. Many have stopped by daily and have started “tripping down memory lane.”
Gerald Thompson, a Switzerland resident, came by the store on Monday and talked with Bernath and Piezzo. He reminisced about growing up in the area and visiting the store, including one occasion when he rode his horse into Hartley’s Store.
“Leonard was screaming and hollering at me,” Thompson said.
Thompson remembered how the boys in the neighborhood would “aggravate Mr. Hartley” and also stop in for a cold drink or bubble gum.
But Leonard Hartley had a penchant for pranks, Thompson said, recalling a quarter glued to the floor, just to see who would try and pick it up.
“It just brings back memories … as a little boy, coming up here,” Thompson said, leaning on the porch.
For Bernath, the store has been something that has connected her family as well as the community. Now it’s reconnecting people in the community, something like a “revival,” she said.
She said her uncle would be pleased.
“I think he’d be really happy about it — just keeping it going,” Bernath said.