- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Facebook, Twitter and other Web-based communities are a safe haven for those in search of a community, but the Sunshine General Store in Montgomery County thrives as a place where handshakes and “good mornings” are the only log-ins and passwords you need.

Mary Clark, or “Miss Mary,” as she has been addressed by customers six days a week since 1980, has been a constant in her community. While the world has transformed around her, Mrs. Clark has remained the same.

The Sunshine General Store, located at Georgia and New Hampshire avenues near the Montgomery and Howard borders in Maryland, steps back into a forgotten era when the county fair was the central social event. The walls of Sunshine are still lined with photos of award-winning cows and their owners.

As an eight-year-old girl who lived across the street from what is now a post office and a fledgling market, Mrs. Clark would get “pop bottles and three pieces of candy for a penny.” She described the General Store as “a little country place we used to come in and get whatever.”

When Mrs. Clark first began working at the General Store, she pumped the gas, worked the cash register, mopped the floor, stocked the shelves and did anything else to keep the store running and people coming back.

“I’ve even changed a few flat tires in my time out here,” said Mrs. Clark. “You’d be surprised how many men know nothing about their cars.”

Mrs. Clark, now living in Laytonsville, sold her property across the street in 1989 and admits, “I never thought I’d end up working here” at the General Store.

Laura Pullen, who purchased the Sunshine General Store in 2002, said the staff consists of five women, including Mrs. Clark, who all work part-time.

“People come in here just as much for the girls in the kitchen as they do for the food,” Ms. Pullen said. “It’s a family place, kind of like a bar scene, because customers will tell them their problems.”

There is a palpable sense of trust that pervades the walls of Sunshine. Messages are left for regulars, knowing they will be in later in the day, and Mrs. Clark says people leave money for friends to pick up.

“People come from afar to eat here,” said Mrs. Clark. “Aspen Hill, Glenmont, Wheaton, Germantown. We have all these people coming down from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. All the kids from Sherwood High School come in here year after year. You can see, there’s nothing fancy about us … . The food speaks for itself.”

While picking up his sandwich order, Mrs. Clark’s son, Jimmy Miller, 39, described his mom’s food, of course, as the “best breakfast and lunch in town.” Mr. Miller estimates he has been coming to Sunshine General for about 35 years.

Sixty pounds of hand-pounded patties fly off the grill into salivating customers’ stomachs every day in the form of half-pound burgers, according to Mrs. Clark. She can go through 50 pounds of bacon and at least 15 dozen eggs a day and has handled up to 30 orders at a time with the help of a small staff.

“I might not know the [customer’s] name, but I know the order. I can recognize the [customer’s] voice on the phone,” said Mrs. Clark.

“Everyone is welcome. From the dressed-up suits to people who come in everyday rags,” said Mrs. Clark. “They all feel comfortable. Places like this don’t exist anymore.”

Joe Elutrio of Cooksville in Howard County, who moved into the area six years ago, said he frequents the Sunshine General Store three to four times a week as he commutes to his job at Costco in Gaithersburg. “The food is great. I’ve never had a bad meal,” he said.

Curtis Harley, 56, of Odenton, says he has been going to Sunshine General Store for three or four years. His asphalt construction jobs often take him within a close distance of the store. “My boss loves this place,” said Mr. Harley.

“At first, I said this looks kind of country, but they treat you real nice. The kindness and the food is good. They don’t shorten you on things. Sometimes I save half my sandwich for later,” said Mr. Harley, who usually doesn’t tip at similar places, but always leaves one at Sunshine.

Often when he goes to the front to pay, the cashier waves him through, and they charge his sandwich to his boss, which Mr. Harley says is another reason he likes coming to the Sunshine General Store.

• John Muller is a writer living in Montgomery County.

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