MELSTONE - On a miserably cold October morning, Barney Richter dropped by Lazy JC Drug and Hardware here looking for an onion and a carton of milk.

"Got to get the chili going," one of the town's newest homeowners said with a smile as he headed toward coolers in the grocery section.

Proprietor Anne Coles greeted him by name from in front of the mirrored back bar that has graced the rambling brick building since it opened as a drugstore in 1912.

"How's Barney today?" she asks as employees bustle through, restocking shelves with a truckload of supplies that arrived the night before.

Richter, a heavy-equipment operator who lives most of the year in a town 20 miles south of Sacramento, Calif., bought a house and three lots in Melstone in 2007 and is fixing up the property.

When he's in town, Richter said, he's in the store at least once a day for groceries or supplies. On a freezing night last week, he bought two heaters. The next day he was back for pipe and other plumbing supplies needed to fix a broken water system.

"It's a great little store," he said. "This store has everything."

The Lazy JC and Melstone remind him of what his small California town was like 40 years ago.

"This is how I grew up," he said.

The store is one of the last businesses in the town of about 140 on the northeast edge of Musselshell County, and it is far and away Melstone's oldest business. It opened its doors just four years after the town was founded as a stop for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1908. The year its walls went up, the entire business district of the once-thriving railroad town burned to the ground. City fathers decided that all new commercial buildings would be constructed of brick, Coles said.

Everyone who has lived or visited Melstone since has some memory of the store, which boasted the town's first - and for a time - only telephone. The original phone booth still stands in a back corner.

Adele Field, a freelance writer who returned to her family roots from Los Angeles two years ago, remembers sipping soft drinks at the old soda fountain when she visited Melstone as a child. "You could come in and get cherry Cokes and chocolate Cokes for a nickel," she said.

The marble face of the soda fountain, now cracked, still holds a place of honor in the store, though soft drinks are no longer dispensed.

Field works one day a week at the Lazy JC.

"My joy is working here," she said. "It's wonderful to be out among people. It's my lifeline to work here on Saturdays. This is our social-networking site."

Everyone from the early-morning kaffeeklatsch to the ranchers and hunters who rely on the Lazy JC for almost every foreseeable need, value the store that has been part of the community for generations. About 100 of them drop in on an average day looking for one thing or another.

Locals began to worry about what would happen to the community lifeline if Coles decided to retire. Coles, 60, has had the store for sale on and off, but has had little response. Her husband died of heart disease in 1996, and the last of her six children graduated from Melstone High School in 2000. None of the children or her 10 grandchildren lives in town now.

Keeping the business

During the last three years, area residents have come up with a plan to transform the store into a cooperative and keep it operating once Coles steps aside.

Almost a third of the populace was involved in a project beginning in 2006 to define community needs and goals. Small grants from the Northwest Area Foundation helped groups working with the Montana State University Extension come up with ideas.

A proposal by Becky Jennaway was one of the first to gain traction. She suggested that the community form a cooperative to buy and operate the Lazy JC. With the help of the Montana Cooperative Development Center in Great Falls, a steering committee recently finished the paperwork necessary to get the co-op rolling.

Nine hundred letters went out earlier this month to current and former area residents advising them of the attempt to buy the store. Those who live in-state were offered the chance to purchase common stock for $250 a share or preferred shares for $2,500. By law, they can't ask people who live out of state to purchase shares, but nonresidents can buy them, Field said. Field is a member of the steering committee.

The committee estimates that it will need to raise $500,000 to buy the store and its inventory and keep it operating for three years. Under the business plan, Coles would remain manager of the store until she retires and a new manager is trained.

Holders of common stock would have a vote in how the store is run. Field said the Lazy JC would not become a members-only store, but shareholders may be entitled to special sales. As an incentive, the Lazy JC Cooperative is exploring buying some items in bulk so that its members can take advantage of the savings. With the letter informing residents about the stock sale, the co-op included an offer to participate in a bulk purchase of fencing supplies.

Coles is excited about community commitment to keeping the store open after she is gone, but admits it will be wrenching when the time comes to turn over the reins - not that she has any intention of doing that anytime soon.

"Other than my knees that hurt a lot, I'm in good health," she said. "I have my home here and I'm going to stay as long as I can still do the work. I enjoy what I'm doing. I just want to make sure that if I can no longer do it that there will be someone here to keep it going."

Coles works at least 80 hours a week and has one full-time and five part-time employees. Store hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. six days a week, and from 6:30 to 10 a.m. on Sundays. On Sundays, she's often in Billings picking up supplies and visiting grandchildren.

After 24 years with only a few days off at a time, Coles said she wouldn't mind a little more time to spend with grandchildren in Great Falls and Billings. She'd also like to see a brother in Finland.

Business bounces back

Coles may love what she's doing, but putting the store back on its feet was a hard slog for the whole family. Coles, her husband, Ben, and their six children - the youngest just 3 years old - moved to Melstone in October 1985, when Ben's job at the elevator in Molt ended. They saw an advertisement for the store and decided to make the investment.

"When we took over 24 years ago, it was ready to close its doors," Coles said. "We had no idea how bad it was."

Hardware supplies hadn't been replenished in 10 months and about the only sales were of pop and cigarettes. Discouraged customers had learned to shop elsewhere.

"Building the business back up was a long, slow process," she said. "It took years to get some of them back."

They started by restocking three rooms set aside for hardware. A truck arrives once a week with new supplies. Then three times a year, the Coles sent out a sales catalog to help draw people back to the Lazy JC.

"We really worked on the hardware side," Coles said. "That's the really important part for people around here. When they get into a project, sometimes they come in several times a day to get something they need. It saves them a lot of money in traveling back and forth."

Having everything in stock - fencing, plumbing, electrical, painting and building supplies - became a point of pride.

"My husband and I always hated it when we didn't have a part someone asked for," she said.

Make room for food

At first, the Coles didn't carry much food, but when the grocery store closed in the early 1990s, they tore down a wall and made room for more staples. Now customers don't have to drive long distances to buy eggs, milk and bread.

The huge store also carries hunting supplies, including warm socks and clothing. Racks of wildlife T-shirts and other Melstone souvenirs are on display. Customers also can find school and office supplies, over-the-counter drugs, shampoo and toothpaste, cleaning supplies, toys and small appliances.

Locals can come in for last-minute birthday presents and wedding gifts and can choose from a table filled with Halloween decorations. There are greeting cards for every occasion, as well as supplies to wrap or bag a gift.

Overshoes can be found in the back, and employee Vickie Stensvad will cut customers a piece of glass or mend a broken screen. Gardening and automotive supplies are available, as are rope and chain and animal feed. The broad variety was especially appreciated by customers for miles around when the hardware store in Roundup closed for two years, Coles said.

For all its isolation, Melstone is a crossroads for this sparsely populated Eastern Montana landscape, she said. Forsyth is 67 miles away, and it's 35 miles to Roundup. Custer is a 45-mile drive and Mosby is nearly that far away.

"We draw from all of that," Coles said.

There are new signs of life within the picturesque Musselshell River valley. A few new households have moved into Melstone, and dozens of potential customers are buying 160-acre tracts in nearby subdivisions, Coles said.

And when new residents need a roll of duct tape or a box of nails, the Lazy JC will be there.

"This store is just such of a vital part of the community, we want to see it continued," Field said.

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