- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

CRADDOCKVILLE, Va. (AP) - The old general store in Craddockville has been a meeting place for Eastern Shore of Virginia residents for more than a century, but that tradition is in peril because of expensive repairs that need to be made - and soon - to keep the building open.

Insurers tell current owner Bill Aeschliman it needs a new roof and heating system - both of which come with a hefty price tag.

“It’s important that we get the word out right now,” said Aeschliman, a quiet man who for years has opened up his shop, called the Chair Place, on Thursday nights to anyone who wants to come by to either play or listen to music.

In its latest incarnation as Aeschliman’s woodworking shop and home for the last two decades, the Chair Place hosts a weekly jam session frequented by in-the-know musicians and music lovers.

“It’s increasingly important that that link to our past be preserved so that my son can experience it and hopefully pass it on to future generations,” said Curt Smith, regional planner at the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission and a Chair Place fan.

Despite the village’s off-the-beaten-path location - some six miles west of Route 13 down twisting, narrow rural roads - people of all ages and all walks of life find their way to the towering old wooden structure to hear live music as well as to get their broken furniture fixed. And when they do, they are welcomed warmly.

It’s pretty much been a word-of-mouth kind of place, but now the Chair Place could use some help from the community it has served and entertained during the years.

“As a gathering place for the community for 100 years, the culture of the community sort of goes when buildings like this disappear,” said historian Dennis Custis.

A fundraising website has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/chairplace.

“Out of 52 weeks a year, we think that we play at least 45 of them. .What’s fun for me is watching (the musicians) and seeing the crowd have a reaction to it,” said Aeschliman, who plays the banjo.

The Chair Place also hosts concerts several times a year - those who have played there include regionally-known musicians like Maryland bluesman Chris English and Hampton Roads band Herbie D and the Dangerman, as well as local favorites like Thelma and Erika Peterson, Mike Hawker and Loaded Goat, among others.

“You know what it is? It’s the acoustics - these shelves just gobble up all the overtones and the rebound sounds, so you get just the pure sound,” said Aeschliman about why musicians like to play there.

The enthusiastic audiences and laid-back vibe of the place likely play a role as well.

While the building is in good shape structurally, the needed repairs will cost an estimated $26,000, including more than $20,000 for the roof alone.

It’s a steep cost for Aeschliman’s modest business, which focuses mainly on building and repairing wooden chairs. He has built 180 chairs in the past 20 years and repaired countless others. Audience members at concerts and the jam sessions sit in some of his handiwork - an assortment of every kind of chair one could imagine, from ladderbacks to armchairs to rocking chairs and more.

Aeschliman’s son, Luke, a senior editor at the Discovery Channel, is working on a film about the building and its place within the community.

“I began looking into doing a documentary about the building, and the show of interest and support by those who love the Chair Place was overwhelming. It became evident how important this is to so many people. I realized that the Chair Place puts a roof over the community, and that same community may want to do the same for it,” he said.

Although its surroundings are sleepy today, the store, when it was built in the 19th century, was at the heart of a bustling community.

Nearby Davis Wharf on the Chesapeake Bay was a point of commerce at a time when much cargo traveled by water. “A lot of commerce traveled through Craddockville,” said Aeschliman, noting at one time there were four stores in the village.

Bill and his wife, Candy, who died in 2004, purchased the store in 1995 from the heirs of Ralph Custis, who with his wife also lived and worked there when it was last a general store.

It had sat empty for five years when they bought it.

The building is still the focal point of fond memories for community members.

“People tell us a lot of stories, especially about the candy counter,” Aeschliman said.

Along with the building came two original store ledgers - the Aeschlimans donated one to the historical society.

The second ledger still sits on a shelf in the Chair Place.

It’s a substantial volume in which the first entry dates to 1898. Its dusty pages hint of how business was done on the Eastern Shore in bygone times.

“They wrote down if you brought in two bushels of clams - they’d give you credit for that” to spend at the store, which along with groceries sold everything from tobacco to coal to shoes, Aeschliman said.

A sign advertising shoes still hangs on the wall, along with other remnants from the building’s former life.

Donors to the building repair fund will have their names inscribed in the old ledger as a way of honoring their contribution, Aeschliman said.

After two decades, Aeschliman’s own history has become part of the store’s, and of the community’s.

The family moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Indiana in late 1989. Aeschliman worked for the company that owned Virginia Landing campground in Quinby; he was transferred to the Shore after being promoted to general manager.

“We came here to be here two years,” he said.

But when the time came for another transfer, they decided to stay, and set about finding work and a place to live - the Virginia Landing job had come with housing.

His friend Tom Wescott told him the old store in Craddockville was for sale - and the rest is history.

His former side job, woodworking, became their livelihood.

Then there was the music.

“The music thing got going when I decided to learn to play the banjo” - Aeschliman set himself that goal on his 50th birthday.

He also learned to build banjos, completing his first one in 2000.

A few musicians he knew, including Wescott, began coming to the store to play together - mainly bluegrass music; then others heard about it and also started to come by. That was 15 years ago.

“Four people have learned how to play bass on that bass,” he said, gesturing to the big instrument leaning in one corner of the stage he built to accommodate musical performances.

“Thursday turned out to be a good day - we couldn’t stay too late because most of us had to work the next day. So I was able to keep it short. Then people started coming and listening,” Aeschliman said.

The more formal concerts, held on weekends, started soon after as a way to encourage local talent by giving them a place to perform.

“Over the years, I’ve had so many people here to play, that they’ve got their favorites,” he said of the Chair Place’s audience.

The next Chair Place concert is May 23 and features Herbie D and the Dangermen. The blues band is returning to the Chair Place for the third time.

A donation box is put out on the counter for concerts, with contributions these days going to the building fund.

The sudden loss of Candy Aeschliman at age 49 was a heavy blow, but Bill decided they would keep the music going, “no matter what - we never let that stop.”

After 15-plus years, the weekly sessions and occasional concerts are still going strong at the Chair Place. Hopefully, with a new roof overhead, they will continue for many more years.

“There’s a certain warmth - from not just the musicians but the people who come,” Aeschliman said, adding, “You can feel comfortable walking through the door - there’s no critics here.”


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