Robber couldn't steal spirit from owner of Pruitt's grocery

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 16, 2010 

  • Anyone with information about the armed robbery of Pruitt's Grocery, 1114 Greene St., Beaufort, around 8 p.m. Oct. 9, is urged to call a Beaufort Police Department investigator at 843-322-7958 or the department's 24-hour dispatch at 843-524-2777. Tips can be given anonymously.

Time seems to have stopped ticking about 1953 in Pruitt's corner grocery.

That changed a week ago Saturday when a masked man with a pistol in his hand walked in.

He came around the meat box and told 78-year-old James W. Pruitt: "Either give me the money or I'm going to shoot you."

He pushed the small man down. He ordered him to get money from the drawer. The old man didn't move quickly enough and was pushed against a counter, cutting his arm. The robber grabbed some cash and ran.

"It happened so fast," Pruitt said.

An ambulance came. Bloodhounds and police officers searched the area. Two investigators searched for evidence in the business established in 1920 at the corner of Greene and Church streets in downtown Beaufort.

The case remains under investigation, and Pruitt is back at work, slicing lunch meat and salami and slowly wrapping it in white paper for customers who treat him like family.

"If I could've gotten to my pistol," he tells them, "I was going to shoot him."

TIES THAT BIND

Pruitt has been keeping store in Beaufort since 1953, the year he graduated from Beaufort High School. He had a small grocery store on Ribaut Road until 1989, when Beaufort County bought a block of property for a parking lot. Since then, he's been at the store on Greene Street opened by his mother's aunt and uncle, and later operated by his father and then his late brother, Ed.

In 57 years of working six, sometimes seven days a week, this is only the third time he's been held up, and it's the only time he lost any money.

His store is almost an anachronism. The other corner groceries that bound the fabric of Beaufort are gone, including Miller's Market on Boundary Street, affectionately known as "Mom Miller's" for proprietor Addie Lee O'Quinn Miller, who had eight children and took in boarders; Koth's, across from the old county courthouse, which boasted the best boiled peanuts on the planet; and Schein's Grocery and Richmond's, a block apart on Bladen Street.

Pruitt was raised in a home attached to the back of the Greene Street store he now keeps open from about 2:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The white clapboard building with green shutters and an American flag over the door is surrounded by homes in a section of town now called the Northwest Quadrant.

Planners and policymakers today wish corner stores would make a comeback to keep people out of cars and energize the city and its tax base. They think it would help put growth in the city, instead of sprawling across the countryside.

Pruitt said it would be hard to start his business from scratch today.

"If you had to pay rent and all, it would be a different proposition," he said. "The light bill keeps getting higher and higher."

'THE WAY WE WERE'

Customers are glad to have it.

A steady stream comes into the store that holds only three or four people at a time. It's a warm place, with chit-chat and news, and relatively small purchases with coins and bills. They come mostly for a couple of dollars worth of hand-sliced lunch meat, salami, bologna, rice pudding, bacon or cheddar cheese.

On shelves behind the counter are staples like pork and beans, chicken noodle soup and sardines. In a wooden case are older items like spools of thread, bottles of mineral oil and glass fuses.

Pruitt has never sold beer.

"My father always said if you don't fool with that stuff, you don't have as much confusion," he said.

Candy is a big seller, not only to the children flowing through after school but to adults.

A Dr Pepper thermometer on the wall advertises that the soft drink is good hot or cold. On another wall are 1964 calendars and old Beaufort Gazette front pages: one from the night native son Brantley Harvey Jr. was elected lieutenant governor, and another from 1975 blaring "Winn-Dixie Manager Murdered."

"How's your arm, Mr. P?" asks a customer, looking at the white gauze bandage on Pruitt's forearm as he hobbles around to his meat slicer.

Tyrone Middleton said he's been a customer since he was about 15. He's now 39.

"He lets people use his telephone," Middleton said. "He gives them credit. He watches out for the neighborhood kids. He has a place where people talk about the economy and the weather. And then this happens. I hope they get him and do whatever to him."

Another customer, seeing an attractive lady at the counter, launched into a soliloquy of Barbra Streisand singing "The Way We Were":

"... Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind, smiles we gave to one another for the way we were. Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time rewritten every line? If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me -- would we? Could we? ..."

It didn't work. She picked up her bag of six Squirrel Nut Zippers, five Mary Janes, five Long Boys, a bottle of water, a slice of lunch meat and five pieces of bubble gum, paid Pruitt, and left.

'COME FORWARD'

Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy says the description of a suspect hidden like it was Halloween doesn't give police much to go on. That's where the tight bond of an old-fashioned corner grocery comes into play.

"We're relying on people in that area who might know something," Clancy said. "Mr. Pruitt's been there so many years and has helped so many people. We're hoping someone will come forward."

Armed robberies are rare. Clancy said the city's overall statistics of robberies, not just armed robberies, are running about the same as a year ago: 24 so far this year compared to 23 for the same period last year.

A lot has been done to run criminals out of the neighborhood since the 1990s, when residents rose up and said they weren't going to take it anymore from drug-fueled criminals. Neighborhood Watch programs are intact, and the police department put a substation in the neighborhood.

"We're working the case," Clancy said. "These things take some time. We're patient."

Somebody knows what happened on the night that time flew inside the time vault of Pruitt's Grocery.

It's up to that somebody to see that public safety doesn't become an anachronism.

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