On one of the final days of Pruitt's Grocery store, Samantha Hicks is on the phone with her mom.
"I'm down at Mr. Pruitt's, you want something?" Hicks asks.
She looks behind the counter at James W. Pruitt, who has worked his family's 95-year-old operation since 1989, but says he is closing his doors either Saturday or Monday and will begin clearing out inventory.
He hopes to find a buyer who wants the old house on Beaufort's Greene Street to remain a grocery store, its use since 1920. He thinks it will be good for the city.
"Do you have any rice pudding?" Hicks asks, relaying her mom's questions.
Pruitt shakes his head.
The Hobart meat slicer hums as $2 worth of salami falls from the blade. Pruitt bought the machine for more than $2,000 not long after leaving his store at Ribaut Road and Duke Street.
He estimates he has cut 250 pounds of meat during a two-day stretch this week. The machine has only failed once in 25 years, a new part costing about $100.
The meat is by far the bestseller at his family's store, which before Pruitt took over had been closed since his brother died of a heart attack in 1980. Pruitt's first store, where he started in 1953, was demolished and the space used as a parking lot for the Beaufort County Government Complex.
Now he is part of the fabric of the Northwest Quadrant.
It's rush hour here, with seven people crowding a small space. For a while, the green door doesn't stop squeaking with a new visitor.
Keys jingle, but not impatiently.
Two women called ahead an hour for a meat order than is not yet ready. Most seem to understand that, as one woman says: "If you in a rush, don't come."
Pruitt is 83, and a number of health issues over the years make it difficult for him to walk and maintain balance.
When he is alone behind the counter, as he was much of the afternoon Wednesday, customers wait.
Pruitt folds Hicks' salami into brown paper and secures it with a piece of masking tape. He shuffles around the U-shaped layout to the register on the other side.
He passes under Dr. Pepper calendars hanging on the wall, a bicentennial license plate and newspapers from 1975 -- "WINN DIXIE MANAGER MURDERED," reads The Beaufort Gazette headline.
After a while, the customers tell Pruitt to cut all of their meat orders at once and save the trek back and forth.
Hicks takes pictures of Pruitt on her phone while he works. Her Facebook post earlier in the week about Pruitt's closing has 56 likes and 18 comments. People from states away want treats from their childhood or for Hicks to shake Pruitt's hand.
Katrina Williams and a cousin wait on the register side to buy penny candy. Only grape, fruit punch and watermelon flavors remain.
"I guess I'm on a Mr. Pruitt-going-away binge," she says. "I bought $3 worth of lunch meat four days in a row."
Williams wonders what will happen during the summer when neighborhood kids are without ice pops and large bottles of water for only a buck. She remembers growing up with the store, people buying lunch meat and honey buns and eating them like a sandwich.
She bought the last honey bun earlier in the week.
Jerry Green, pastor of The Word Is Alive Church in Beaufort, wants Now&Later candy for his son. There are only two boxes left.
"Pruitt, I heard this is your last weekend," Green says. "I heard that and I started crying. My mom said, 'Mr. Pruitt is retiring.' I said, 'Well, let me go get some meat before he leaves."
There is no rice pudding, but he picks up salami, lunch meat and the candy.
Pruitt acknowledges all the well-wishers, even the man who bangs on the boarded-up store after closing and asks for dish detergent.
He was close to stepping aside for good after major surgery in 1999 that included five bypasses, a heart valve and both carotid arteries. He has been living the past 16 years on Cat Island in the home of John Barton, a retired photographer who promised his mother, Edna, he would look out for Pruitt, who was her good friend.
Pruitt uses a walker at home. He has problems with the arteries in his left leg and uses the counters at the store for balance.
"When you get to where you can't get around like you should, I won't miss it as much," Pruitt says.
Barton pulls up to the store about 7 p.m. in a red pickup to help Pruitt close, as he does most days. The store used to stay open closer to 9, but Barton felt it was getting too dangerous.
Pruitt has been robbed four times, most recently in 2013. Signs were posted around the store asking residents to look out for the historic store and its owner.
No one could understand why someone would take from him.
The people crowding the store this week wanted to give back in the form of stories. Pruitt says he remembers most faces.
A man asks if Pruitt is open until Saturday.
"Well," Pruitt says, "I don't know if the meat will last that long."
Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.
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