A wholesome quarter-century

Within days of visiting family on the island 25 years ago, Ce-Ann Parker and Howard Block became the proud owners of Bay Hay and Feed, an aging corner store that sold drywall, sacks of feed, and not much else.

The pair had come from New Hampshire, where they studied horticulture and owned a health food store. But they were tired of the frigid winters, so they came west, to Parker’s hometown, looking for a fresh opportunity.

“I’m a Long Island Jewish boy. I knew nothing about feed,” said Block, who bought the 1911 building at the corner of Sunrise Drive and Valley Road after driving past it one day.

“But it grew on us. And now it’s way more than a feed store.”

And Parker and Block have emerged as more than just retailers. They are routinely treated to hugs, kisses and good wishes from neighbors and customers. Under their ownership, Bay Hay and Feed has become a community icon, a funky hub of island life that residents delight in sharing with friends and visitors.

“It’s a friendly place, what small-town stores used to be,” said longtime customer Sylvia Palmer of Beachcrest. “They go out of their way to be helpful and to make people feel welcome, and that’s why the store is so popular.

“They are always doing something for the community. They are two wonderful people who have worked hard. I have watched the store grow.”

This coming Saturday, Parker and Block will celebrate the store’s 25th anniversary under their ownership, with cake for customers and staff, and drawings to give away 25 of their locally famous Bay Hay and Feed sweatshirts.

“The neat thing about being here 25 years, is that not that many businesses make it that long,” said Parker, who oversees the store’s nursery. “There’s stability in that, and there’s so little of it in today’s world.”

Added her husband: “We’re putting rubber boots on kids of kids that we sold rubber boots to when we first opened here.”

Only now there are sparkly pink ones that look like cowboy boots, and green ones that look like frogs, along with hiking boots and clogs, slippers and sandals, heavy wool socks, mittens, hundreds of warm hats, jackets, and all manner of warm-weather gear.

“Our style was to grow the way the community wanted us to grow – slowly,” said Block, who has been restoring the old building as long as he and his wife have owned it.

They could have hired contractors and been done with it.

Instead, Block worked on it summer after summer, digging around the old structure, raising it up, adding a new foundation with the help of his son Teague and his friends, and building a boardwalk around it.

The project took 25 years, and it’s not done yet.

“Now the people look at this building a little differently,” Block said. “They saw us rebuild it board by board to maintain it the way it was. We thought it was more important to keep the feeling.”

That “feeling” is a direct result of the couple’s unsung community-mindedness, employees say.

“They do so much for the community, but they don’t look for accolades. They do it in a quiet way,” said Margie Klein, the nursery manager for 13 years. “Every day, people come in looking for donations, asking for advice for their livestock and their animals. People come in late off the ferry and ask them to stay open, and they do.”

Rural eclectica

Like the general stores of old, Bay Hay and Feed sells an eclectic array of items for rural island life.

The feed sacks that were stacked almost to the ceiling when Parker and Block bought the place – they used to sit on the piles and eat lunch, because it was warmer up there – have been relegated to the big barn out back, where hay and alfalfa are stored.

Block had never lifted a bale of hay in his life when a truck came to deliver his first order. He unloaded it himself, and now the feed portion of the business is his territory.

Parker added the nursery with an eclectic array of plants for year-round gardening 20 years ago, when her daughter was 2, on what was a bare lot behind the store.

The nursery began offering organic, pesticide-free plants for sale long before it was fashionable or profitable, “back when we couldn’t find anyone who would supply us,” Block said. “We have promoted organic since day one,” Parker added.

The couple’s children, now in college, helped the store grow. While Teague helped his dad on restoration, Abbie did all the ordering, stocking and displaying of the collectible Breyer horses, starting as a teenager.

They grew up in a store in which animals have always been as welcome as people. For years, Fred the turkey grazed out back, and Block used to walk him to Wilkes school at Thanksgiving time, so the students could see him up close.

Abbie’s favorite chicken, a pet named Timmie, rode around on her shoulder while she worked at the store. A rabbit slept for years by the store’s wood stove, and a sheep named Dolly was another of the customer’s favorites.

Today, the couple’s half-blind mutt Sliver follows her owners around the store, albeit slowly, at age 14.

“They all eat really well here,” Parker said of the animals.

Hundreds of fluffy yellow chicks are sold each spring, so islanders can try their hand at harvesting their own eggs. During chick season, Block conducts workshops on how to build coops to keep predators out, and is known to give recycled building materials to customers who can use them.

The gift shop is stocked with books, table linens, pottery, candles, soaps, wrapping paper and ribbons, cards, puzzles and games. Nearby are seeds, bulbs, and all manner of garden supplies and tools for adults and children.

There’s also a section stocked with the store’s trademark T-shirts, which feature the Bay Hay and Feed logo and animal designs inspired by vintage feed bags, which sell by the thousands.

In the 1980s, a world map inside the store was dotted with hundreds of pins marking shirt sightings around the world, and the craze for Bay Hay T-shirts resulted in front-page write-ups in the Seattle dailies.

“It just caught on,” Parker said with amazement. “We have parents who come in for the shirts once their kids go to college, and sometimes they return with long lists from the roommates.”

In the pet section, amidst the salves and toys and clippers and leashes, are open trays of kibble in the aisles, so that neighborhood dogs can snack when their owner’s go shopping. Some dogs have a habit of sneaking in and grazing all day. If they make off with a dried pig’s ear or a toy, their humans know where they’ve been, the owners say.

“Some of the dogs have charge accounts,” Parker said.

Block and Parker say they never could have succeeded without the help of their 19 employees, many of whom have worked at the store for more than a decade.

“They’re just like family,” Parker said.

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