Country stores are a great alternative to dealing with the hustle and bustle of mall shopping, where you have to reckon with an unending lineup of similar stores found anywhere that sell rack upon rack of the same stuff. Salespeople in many of these emporiums who don’t have a clue about what they are supposed to be selling make the experience even more frustrating.
These throwback stores, on the other hand, not only feature out-of-the-ordinary items, but the person waiting on you is probably the owner, who also hand-picked the merchandise. Each store has its own personality and focuses on specialty items that interest the owners and hopefully the buyers. Food is a common element, but there is plenty to see that is out of the ordinary. Join us for an armchair tour of a handful of these local stores. A visit to each makes a wonderful Sunday drive that can stretch through the summer.
The Bernhards Bay Country Store, at 696 Route 49, Bernhards Bay, stocks a collection of edibles stacked up along a small area inside its sprawling 3,000 square feet. “Our cashew brittle is like no other and is one of our most popular items,” says Tony Ciesla, who has owned the property with his wife Mary Lou since Sept. 29, 2007. There are jellies, jams, maple syrup and also Green Mountain gourmet chocolates from Franklin, Mass. Locally produced Paul deLima Coffee has been sold here for many years before the Cieslas arrived. “Mr. deLima used to deliver his coffee here himself,” adds Ciesla. Cheeses from the Heluva Good Cheese Company in Sodus are safely stored in a cooler.
One room in the front corner is devoted to the history of the store, which dates to the 1840s. A glass showcase protects old photos and memorabilia and indicates subsequent additions to the building over the years. The room also houses a variety of handmade crafts created by more than 50 local artists. Hand-painted dishes, mostly in floral motifs, are made by an 82-year-old local woman. Delicate necklaces, bracelets and pins are all one-of-a-kind. Unique baby bibs and linens make great baby or bridal shower gifts. All are sold on a consignment basis. “We try to have well-made and interesting things that are priced inexpensively,” says Ciesla.
Counters, shelves and cases house a horde of antiques of every kind, peppered with old pieces of jewelry tucked or draped in between, for color and texture. One corner holds a stack of large and small farm implements, such as an all-wood shovel, cowbells, saws and ice tongs, and there is a wall of old books and magazines, including copies of Life magazine, dating to as early as 1937. The room also holds a display of old coffee cans and vintage baby clothes.
Time travel: At Bernhards Bay Country Store (also on the cover) you’ll find a variety of nostalgic candy and other sundries, along with owners Tony and Mary Lou Ciesla. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
When asked how they keep track of the thousands of items in the store, Ciesla says, “We have everything on computer.” A lot easier than the old days of copying each item by hand on a thick ledger.
The Cieslas operate the store alone, no additional help needed. But that may change soon. “We plan on fixing the upstairs, which has the same dimensions as the lower level to open a 1,200-square-foot, four-table billiards room in one area, and rent out the remaining space as a flea market,” says Mary Lou. “There should be room for 15 to 20 dealers.” The space will be ready some time in August.
She has dubbed the back space “The Primitive Room” because of the wide variety of items that date as far back as the 1700s. In addition, there are beautiful pillows, place mats, tablecloths and throws, created on a 200-year-old loom by an artist in Pennsylvania who weaves muted tones from hand-spun threads. These may be unique pieces but they would still fit into any home’s decor.
To get to the Bernhards Bay Country Store, take Interstate 81 north from Syracuse to the Central Square exit (Exit 32) and turn right onto Route 49; Bernhards Bay is 12 miles east. Route 49 is an interesting jumble of businesses, many of which are small eateries that cater to the fishermen who try their luck on adjacent Oneida Lake. Homes mixed in along the way range from ramshackle to well-maintained, all making for an engaging picture. Look for the pair of metal moose peering out of the pile of antique items set outside the store.
“Most of our customers are from the area,” admits Mike Casale, owner of the Wrightway Hardware Store in Baldwinsville, adding that it wouldn’t make sense for “someone from Syracuse to drive all the way here to pick up something that is available at Home Depot.” But for locals, it is a definite convenience not to have to trek all the way into the “big city” for things like small tools or plumbing supplies. “We do get people who stop in on their way to their cottages on Lake Ontario, though,” he says.
Wrightway Hardware was originally established as a small mom-and-pop store. Subsequent additions were made to the main building and Casale bought the property in 1973. The store gained some notoriety when the Wegmans-owned Chase-Pitkin stores closed two years ago. At the time, WSYR-Channel 9’s Mike Price did a story on how some local stores are able to survive while some big-box chain stores can’t.
Casale’s answer: “Well, we don’t make a lot of money, but we are still doing OK. It’s the hands-on customer service that keeps these out-of-the way operations going. More often than not, customers who are looking for a plumber or electrician ask me to refer them to someone, and I have many workers who come here that I know will do a good job, and match them up with the customers.”
In addition to hardware, it’s fun to find things like tricycles and Radio Flyer wagons for sale. How about a fly swatter? There is even a rack of suspenders of every color; Larry King would go wild! Children’s coloring books and items like old-time slide whistles and Gumby toys cover an entire counter. In between are penny candy—circus peanuts, candy lipsticks and bubble gum, priced variously—but still more than a penny each.
And then there is a glass jar of “Nose Flutes” that sits on the front counter, something that you would probably not find anywhere else. Instructions direct one to fix it to the nose and blow. It was even endorsed by Jimmy Durante. At $1.98 it would make an inexpensive and fun conversation piece.
Behind the checkout counter are shelves of locally made honey. “It is made by one of my salespeople and her husband, who are beekeepers,” says Casale. “We have had testimonials from those who come in regularly to buy the honey, remarking how it helps their ailments.”
There are many other things here that you can’t get at Home Depot or Lowe’s, including fueling up your car for your trip back to Syracuse. To find the place, take Interstate 690 west to the end, which continues as Route 48. The store is at the corner of Lamson Road and Route 48, although the official address is 9236 Oswego Road. While the address also indicates Baldwinsville, it is actually closer to Phoenix.
When you visit the Elderberry Pond Country Food Store you may have the opportunity to purchase items like a basket of mesclun greens, a bunch of spinach or perhaps rosy red radishes that were hand-picked from the farm just minutes before. The bonus: All are still dewy fresh. The store is a small stone building that sits on the premises of Elderberry Pond, a 100-acre certified organic farm just outside Auburn. The spot borders the town of Sennett, and is also easily accessible from Skaneateles. Figure on about one hour’s driving time from Syracuse.
Rural routes: Take a Sunday drive to the country stores that dot the region, including Wrightway Hardware, between Baldwinsville and Phoenix, and Niles Gourmet Country Market (below), where owners Sandie and Eric Becker encourage you to stay for dinner.
Drivers who take Route 5 west from Syracuse pass along a string of commercial buildings; in between are open fields. But once you turn left onto Chestnut Ridge (right after 84 Lumber), and then onto Center Street Road, you are in another world. Rolling, verdant farmlands set a bucolic scene as a preface to the Elderberry Pond Country Food Store. The store is part of the farm, managed since 1983 and using organic and sustainable practices.
The store just opened on June 20. “We have to wait until there is enough produce that is ready for picking before we open,” says Merby Lego, co-owner of the farm with her husband, Lou.
You’ll likely find bay lettuces, asparagus, spinach, strawberries, snow and snap peas, along with regular and French filet beans. Expect colorful, seasonal blooms just waiting to dress up your dinner table filling the room with pungent fragrances, melded with the sweet aroma of popular herb varieties.
Free-range poultry, fed with organic grains, will also be available, along with jams, jellies, conserves, soups, salads, breads and pies made from Elderberry Pond’s fresh pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. They also offer Fair Trade coffee.
After a visit to the store, stay for lunch or dinner. Son Chris Lego is executive chef. The warm, beautifully appointed building is the perfect backdrop for feasting on items like asparagus and spring onion pasta prepared with organic whole wheat pasta, sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta salata cheese. A grilled New York strip steak from beef grown at Equity Angus in Montezuma or Spring Brook Farms in Weedsport is also on the menu, prepared with Balsamic vinegar and port wine, caramelized red onions, vegetables and potatoes. There is a roasted rack of lamb with apple-brandy demi-glace and seafood items of swordfish or shrimp and scallop pasta.
Many wines on their list have been produced by vintners who grow their crops using organic or sustainable farming practices. They serve wines from around the world, but there are some from nearby Finger Lakes and Long Island vineyards.
Elderberry Pond’s organic, free range chicken is also featured as an entree for dinner or for lunch as a sandwich with roasted red peppers, Swiss cheese and rosemary mayonnaise. An open-faced sandwich uses the farm’s own smoked ham that comes from farm animals who live in portable houses, moving the animals in their moveable pens to take advantage of the best grazing areas, where there is continuous access to green alfalfa and clover, fresh water and certified organic corn and soy grain.
Check out the many activities at the farm itself to complete your visit. The Legos encourage customers to grow their own Victory Garden by offering gardening and food preparation workshops during spring and fall. Sunday afternoon farm tours are available during the summer. Call for hours at 252-3977.
You may want to revisit the Elderberry Farms Country Food Store throughout growing season to savor the produce as it becomes available. Sweet corn begins to appear in August along with heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, sweet and hot peppers, melons and cukes. Apples, pears and plums ripen on the farm’s fruit trees. In the fall, treat yourself to Elderberry Pond’s apple cider, carrots, winter squash, garlic and leeks. Finish off the season with pungent Hungarian paprika, made on the farm.
The Niles Gourmet Country Market offers special meals and an impressive array of edible items for sale, researched and collected by the Beckers. “We are open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays,” says Sandie. On Mondays and Tuesdays the couple makes the rounds to places like the Green Star Co-Op in Ithaca. While they have acquired an excellent working relationship with local farmers, they are continually searching for farms that produce organic meats, cheeses and vegetables, to add to their already wide list of resources.
Among their purveyors is the nearby Amish community that raises its own lamb. Free-range pork from Shirk Meats in Dundee translates into ribs, sausages and nitrate-free bacon. Buffalo and venison, both leaner than beef, are made into steaks, smoked products and even hot dogs. Much of the produce comes from the Beckers’ gardens within their 3-acre property.
They serve French press coffee, which means each cup is made one at a time, and comes from the Kind Coffee Company, on West Fayette Street in Syracuse. They also serve organic wine and beer, acquired from near and far.
A visit to the Niles Gourmet Country Market always yields a surprise. You may find exotic items like smoked ostrich meatballs. This is the season for fresh Maine lobster which Sandie likes to prepare as a salad. For something more stick-to-the-ribs, she found wonderful ribeye steaks from Shirk Meats. A favorite of diners is her scratch ravioli; many return to savor these light pillows of dough. They may be stuffed with butternut squash in the fall but for now they are stuffed with fresh seasonal vegetables. “I’m currently using fiddlehead ferns for my filling,” says Sandie.
The chef admits she cooks by the seat of her pants. “I never know what I am going to prepare until I see what I have before me,” she says. “Whatever I cook is in batches of 10, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.” And don’t look for a printed menu. “I fix what inspires me, depending on what I have on hand,” she explains. What inspires both Beckers is natural, organic specialty foods. “We are 99 percent non-hydrogenated, trans-fat free throughout the market,” touts their brochure.
Sandie invites her guests into her spacious kitchen where she shows off her wood-fired stove, the centerpiece workhorse of the establishment. Not only is it her main cooking source, noting that the cooking on the stove imparts a unique flavor to whatever is being prepared, but it is the sole basis of heat for the entire building.
The Beckers hail from Ithaca, and both were on staff at Cornell for many years. They longed for a large, quiet space in the country, and in 1998 moved to this rural property. Everything here was built by the couple themselves, including laying the foundation for what became a rustic log cabin. “I hand-scraped the logs for the ceiling,” notes Sandie, pointing to the scraped-down wood strips above.
The shelving was installed, tables and chairs appeared—enough to seat 30—then the outdoor patio emerged with additional seating. The kitchen took shape around the prized stove, and after much research they established close relationships with local farmers, co-ops and purveyors. The latest addition to the property is an outdoor brick Italian oven; it should be completed by late August.
The Niles Gourmet Country Market is a place you definitely won’t find anywhere else. The challenge is to find it. From Syracuse, it’s about an hour’s drive. Go through Skaneateles, then turn left on Route 41A (West Lake Road) to Mandana. You’ll see the Mandana Inn just as you turn right onto Route 359. Turn right onto Route 38. This is where it gets tricky, because Route 38A goes south before bending east. Then turn right on Grange Hall Road; and start looking for signs to Niles Gourmet Country Market. All of this takes about 15 minutes from the 41A turn.
Coke in the 9-ounce bottles you remember is sold by Wrightway’s Mike Casale.
Bernhards Bay Country Store
676 Route 49, Bernhards Bay (675-3806) is open May through December; Mondays to Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. From January through April, it’s open Fridays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro Cucina Rustica
4583 Grange Hall Road, Niles, are both open year-round, Wednesdays to Sundays, from noon to 8 p.m. Call 784-5015 or visit www.nilesgourmet.com.
The Elderberry Pond Country Store
3728 Center Street Road, Auburn (252-3977) is open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Elderberry Pond Restaurant (252-6025 or www.elderberrypond.com) is open mid-March to December, Wednesdays through Sundays; lunch seating begins at 11:30 a.m., with dinner seating starting at 5 p.m.
9236 Oswego Road, Baldwinsville (695-2394) is open Mondays to Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.