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Tales from St. James and Head of the Harbor II: Hard Candy and Ghosts at St. James General Store

St. James General Store, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York

St. James General Store. 

“I don’t like little children ghosts,” Miss Bronwen said with a shudder.
“You saw the Shining didn’t you?” I asked her, taking my eyes from the road.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied, looking uneasy in the passenger seat.
“Wanna hear a true ghost story?” I asked her.
“How true?” she replied.
“Honest to goodness true,” I answered, taking my hand off the wheel to cross my heart.

She sighed, which I took to mean yes, so I began the story.

“The house my ex and I used to live in is split into two apartments, one upstairs, one down. We lived in the lower apartment, quite nice, even though the old woman who had lived there before had decorated the bathroom with plush pink carpet, and what visitors typically described as titty pink paint on the walls.”

She looked at me, her eyebrow raising.

“It’s part of the People’s palette,” I replied to her unspoken comment. “Titty pink, monkeyshit brown, babyshit yellow.”

“I see,” she replied.

“Anyway, once while the bathroom was being renovated, my wife and I had been forced to use the apartment upstairs for showers. That apartment had problems, needed quite a bit of work and so often sat empty for months at a time. The power was off there, the wife had returned late, and wanted me to come up with her while she showered. We took a large candle up, and a flashlight, and while she showered I sat watching the shadows on the wall. She had a horrible fear of the movie “The Shining,” particularly of the little kid who kept saying ‘redrum’, and who wrote it on the bathroom mirror. I had the inspiration to write it in the fog on the bathroom mirror there, and had gotten just the first three letters written when I thought better of it. I decided to explore the apartment a bit, which was a rather creepy by flashlight. The smell of old wood, locked tight with no fresh air – the wood having that baked smell from too many sunny days and no curtains on the wall. The flashlight’s beam reminded me of murder movies, I half expected to shine it in a room and see a body propped up in bed, blood and brains splattered on the wall behind. ‘Nancy Clutter’ I thought to myself, remembering reading “In Cold Blood,” as a kid, and having trouble sleeping for months afterwards when I had seen the movie.”

She nodded, probably never having seen it but she did after all have more than a passing acquaintance with the works of Truman Capote.

“I reached the last room off the hallway, a small bedroom, dark and claustrophobic and felt a panic. An indescribable feeling, for which I could imagine no cause, and immediately went back down the hallway to the bathroom, walking perhaps a bit too quick to be nonchalant about it. She was out of the shower and just finishing drying off, slipping her robe on. She said she had seen my little present for her on the bathroom mirror I was glad she wasn’t going to kill me actually. I glanced over at the mirror and noticed that she had written “redrum” below where I had started it, her own finger tracing smaller than mine. So I said ‘well weren’t you the brave one?’ She didn’t know what I was talking about, so I pointed out where she had written it. ‘I didn’t write anything on it,’ she said looking at the mirror. I looked again, and sure enough, there were two versions, my half finished one as well as the completed word. I said ‘sure you didn’t’ and she asked what the hell I was talking about. I showed her where I had started to write it, and then I more closely at the finished word below it, and I realized that the letters were very thin, as though written with the finger of a small child. The ex was tiny to be sure, but not that tiny. I looked to her and saw the color draining from her face, and we left as quickly as possible. And, for the next day or two went without showers.”

“Oh sure,” Miss Bronwen said, a look of skepticism on her face. “Your house was haunted by a ghost who had seen ‘The Shining’.”

“I know,” I replied, “logic would decree that had there been a ghost there it is unlikely it had seen the movie, and there had to be a logical explanation and I was a bit of a chicken to fly from the place as we did. At that moment logical thought seemed less important than getting the hell out of there.”

She laughed, looking at me before pointing out the turn off Route 25A I needed to make. In addition to the multitude of things Miss Bronwen does well, she is an excellent navigator.

“The next day I took the landlord up there, and sure enough, streaked on the mirror were my fingerprints, as well as the smaller one below. I told the landlord what had happened. He didn’t have a clue what it could have been, and wanted to get off the subject as quickly as possible.”

“Did anything else happen there?” she asked.

“I used to hear footsteps walking around in the middle of the night, when no one was there,” I replied. “But otherwise, not a thing.”

“Parking lot to your left,” she said as I noticed the Saint James General Store approaching on the right.

“Ah, good idea, so the car won’t be in the picture for photographs,” I said, noticing the empty parking places out front.

“See? I can be useful on occasion,” she replied.

“So? What do you know about this place,” I asked her, looking at the quaint little building through the windscreen.

“Smithtown was founded in the mid to late 1600s by one Richard Smith,” she began. “Also known as Bull Smith, as he was fond of riding a bull instead of a horse. He bought a large chunk of land from the Nesaquake indians, and made a deal that they would toss in, in addition, the amount of the area he could encircle riding his bull in a day. And as a result, you get the boundary of Smithtown.”

“Interesting,” I replied. “You do know your Smiths.”

“Of course,” she answered and went on. “The St. James General Store was built in 1857, enlarged to what you see now in the 1890’s, and is thought to be the longest, continuously operating general store in the county. The colors are the original colors it was painted when it was new, and the pot bellied stove,” she reached over and patted my belly and grinned, “is believed to be original.”

I growled and shot her a glare.

“Anything else of importance?” I asked curtly.

“The home made peanut butter cups will expand your own personal pot bellied stove considerably,” she giggled.

“Well I’ve done a bit of research of my own,” I said nonplussed. “One of Richard Smith’s descendants, an Ebeneezer Smith lived in a part of Smithtown called Sherawogge. He became a trader in the midwest, out in my neck of the woods, then headed west during the gold rush. He did pretty well, then came back here and built the store. By this time, Sherawogge was changed to something more easily pronounced, Saint James, named for the local church. He sold medicine, clothes, vet supplies, tobacco, groceries, everything a farmer might need. It also contained the post office, and in time became the center of the community.”

“In other words,” Miss Bronwen said, “your typical general store.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “Upstairs there were parties and dances, people hung around and talked, gossiped, all the good stuff that makes up a community. Then the railroad came in, which would have been about 1873, which brought the city folk.”

“Heaven forbid,” she said rolling her eyes in fake anguish, “city folk.”

“A famous silent actor was pedaling his bicycle through the area, according to legend,” I went on. “His name was Willie Collier, sometimes playwright, now totally forgotten unless you’re a fan of Turner Classic Movies, which I am.”

“I thought you had your cable turned off as a part of austerity measures?” she asked.

“Correct. Unless you’re a fan of TCM, which I was,” I went on. “Anyhoo, Collier builds an estate, the hoi poloi follow. Soon St. James is overrun with the like of the Barrymores – Lionel, Ethel and John. There was also Buster Keaton, Lillian Russel, Maud Adams, Myrna Loy and Irving Berlin. All these folks had accounts here at the store, and you still find them if you go back through the ledgers. It was an odd combination of people, artists, architects, politicians, there was even a heavyweight boxing champion, mixing it up with farmers and fishermen. Eventually the area became less rural, no farms, no fishing and the general store fell into the hands of the preservationists.”

“They do a good job with it though,” she added. “It’s good to see it’s not just a dusty museum.”

“Aye,” I replied. “And of course the biggest claim to fame in the area,” I said as we got out of the car and started for the store, “the Beast.”

“The Beast?” she asked.

“The Beast,” I replied. “In 1918, the area was terrorized by a hairy creature which attacked dogs and humans alike. It supposedly threw stones with great accuracy as well. Finally shot and killed by a hunter, and it was speculated it was actually an ape of some sort, probably escaped from a ship stopping off at Port Jefferson. The fellow who shot it picked up a reward of sixteen bucks and change.”

We entered the store and it was like stepping back in time. Inside the store is the same as it would have been a hundred years ago. Only some of the stock has changed. The counters, the post office, coffee grinder, tea canisters, checkerboard all smacked of the 19th century. There were old bottles, old boxes, and disconcertedly, magnets, postcards and other pieces of modern kitsch. On the wall, a portrait of old Ebeneezer Smith stares down at those trading in his store.

We moved through the room slowly, Miss Bronwen browsing furiously. I moved closer to her.

“Over by the counter, that’s supposedly where the little girl ghost was seen,” I whispered.

She shivered involuntarily.

“I swear to god,” she said, “if I see or hear anything out of the ordinary, or anything stranger than you, which isn’t easy mind you, I’m out of here. I’ll meet you in the car, and you better bring me some hard candy sticks when you come.”

“It’s a deal,” I said. We moved further back through the store, into the back room. The place is full of stuff, a lot of which I hadn’t seen in years. In the far back room, to the right I made out the entrance to the stairs that lead upwards. I took her hand and led her to them.

“Ooh! The bookstore part,” she said. “I love it up there.”

Haunted staircase at the St. James General Store, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York

The stairs where the child cries at St. James General Store.

The stairs are narrow and steep, and the walls on each side close, rather claustrophobic. I let her go up first, me following close behind, her bottom at eye level, forgetting the ghost for a moment and thinking what a truly fetching lady Miss Bronwen is.

“It’s along these steps that the little girl has been heard crying,” I said. She stopped, turned and glared at me, then hurried on up.

Once at the top, the room opens up into a long room. Along the walls to the left are shelves of books – history books, cookbooks, children’s books, craft books – books of all kinds. There is an especially nice section of local history books, and in the center of the room, being near Halloween, was a large selection of books of ghost stories. Featured prominently was Kerriann Flanagan Brosky’s “Ghosts of Long Island,” both volumes. The second features a section on the Saint James General Store, which is where I had learned about the ghosts here, and I told Miss Bronwen so.

“Is there anything about ghosts on Long Island you haven’t learned from her books?” she asked sarcastically.

“Well, a little bit,” I replied. “I also learned a lot from Long Island Oddities. Can I help it if these people are all natives and I’m from the outside? They’ve had a head start.”

“And so that’s why you need me to do your research? That’s all I am to you? Someone to do your legwork?” she asked with a grin.

“Now you know better than that. You are absolutely indispensable,” I replied. “As well as my muse.”

She tossed a collection of M.R. James short stories at my head and went off to study the children’s books and I started snapping pictures. The floorboards creaked with every step, and it reminded me, being up here of being aboard an old ship. Most of all I was captured by the smell of the place, something I had noticed since I had walked in the door. So many different smells, some ancient, some new, and up here of course, the smell of books. I went into the far room, over the front of the store which was chock full of Christmas trees and decorations. Ever notice how Christmas decorations, even artificial ones, seem to smell like pine? This was another spot where people had felt the presence of spooks.

According to Ms. Brosky’s book, there isn’t a lot in the way of haunting about the place. A few reports of a child’s voice, the crying in the stairway – and one employee claims to have seen a little girl walking behind the counter. And okay, that’s pretty creepy. Otherwise, like many stories in her books, there is a lot of emphasis on people’s “feelings.”

I don’t believe you should ever discount people’s feelings of something unusual or strange going on. But I know from my own experience, that despite firmly believing in the paranormal, despite having witnessed it first hand, a lot of times my “feelings” are colored by the setting. A location which looks like it should be haunted, which has a reputation of being haunted, often feels like it’s haunted. Simply because of my own expectations.

I came out of the room and into the book area and looked over towards Miss Bronwen. As I did there was the sound of footsteps, rather light hurrying through the room. She turned quickly to me, a look of panic in her eye. Snapping the book closed, she started walking towards me.

“That was squirrels I think,” I said, sounding a bit unsure. “Running across the roof.”

“Uh huh,” she said, “I told you I don’t like little children ghosts,” turned on her heels and walked to the top of the stairs. She looked around once more, took a deep breath and hurried down. By the time I reached the bottom of the steps she was out of the back room, and by the time I was in the main room, she was almost to the door.

I went over to the counter where a very friendly lady asked how she could help me.

“Oh, how about three or four of the hard candy sticks. The fruity ones. And um, one of those really huge peanut butter cups. I glanced down at my tummy, pooching out over my belt. “Even though I know I shouldn’t.”

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  • Debbie Sorensen August 31, 2014, 1:05 am

    I loved reading this. Growing up in Smithtown, I’ve been to the St. James General Store many times. It was always a favorite place to go. While reading this story, it reminded me of the smell when you walked in. Old, new and somehow special. I remember the creaky floorboards and the hard candy sticks. My favorite was the rock candy. I haven’t been back to the store in 30 years or so, but after reading this story, it could have been yesterday. I’m glad they haven’t changed it. I’m glad that there is a mystery surrounding it. Mostly I’m glad I read this. Thanks for the memories!

  • Karl S. April 4, 2017, 10:00 pm

    I too loved reading this. Like the poster above, I’ve been to the St. James General Store many times and loved every one of them. Never seen a ghost there, but there is a charm and magic to the place that has not receded even yet and, God willing, never will. Thanks for the article.

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