Food | May 2014
Coming Home Again
Water Valley’s B.T.C. Grocery
Story by M.B. Sellers
Photos by Terry Sweeney
B.T.C. Grocery, located in Water Valley, Miss., is a spacious, brightly lit venue in the hearts of both downtown and the town’s inhabitants. Brick-walled and flanked by enormous black chalkboards heralding the daily specials, there’s a cluster of red and blue booths in the back for customers eager for breakfast and lunch. A powder blue sign reading “The Red Apron Café” in a vintage-looking font hangs above their heads. The store’s famous produce is located in the front of the building, neatly labeled and abundant. Above one stand, there’s another eye-catching sign announcing “Cora’s Mississippi Mudd Bakery.”
The decoration is intentional and kinetic—with the use of chromatic and custom fonts, the shabby-chic feel seems adjusted rightly so to the overall mood of the venue. It’s open and welcoming, but highly stylized with a deft, subtle hand that seems to know the importance of proper presentation. This is no regular grocery, folks. A trio of ladies in the back, who have been enjoying coffee and small talk, embody the type of customers who come through B.T.C. Grocery. Reminiscent of Utopian small towns in fiction, all three have kind, relaxed smiles as they take a moment to browse the produce before exiting the store. There’s another lingerer—a man working on his laptop and sipping coffee, relaxed and focused, as anyone should be at B.T.C. The “B.T.C.” in the grocery store’s name stands for “Be the Change,” a reference to Gandhi who said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Alexe van Buren, owner and head grocer at B.T.C., embodies that quote like no other. She relocated from Washington, D.C., in 2007 with her husband, and, after purchasing the building, the business was up and running by 2010. “We’d been living here for a few years, and had gotten this building to run without any idea of what to do with it. And my husband was working full-time then renovating it on nights and weekends. I was really in love with this town, but the only thing that I found myself leaving for on a regular basis was food that Piggly Wiggly didn’t carry, and I thought there might be other people like me. We had this building and we decided to go ahead and open a little grocery store,” she explains.
Van Buren hails from Virginia, where she grew up on a working farm in Blue Ridge. “My mom had a big garden and she was—and is—very health conscious. She has some sheep, we have horses, that kind of thing. When I was sort of thinking about starting a grocery store, but hadn’t actually made a decision, my mother, who had no idea I was thinking about anything like that, found this list I’d made when I was six or seven. And it said ‘when I grow up I want to be: 1. an actress, 2. a writer, 3. a merchant who shall be fair and kind and just to all, and not take any expensive vacations or anything. And I have no memory of making that list.” She has a team of highly capable staff, including Dixie Grimes as chef. “She’s basically my partner at this point,” van Buren said. Van Buren and Grimes put out a cookbook together in March of this year. “The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook,” which includes 120 of the store’s most-loved recipes, is currently sold in a variety of places including Square Books in Oxford, Miss. The cookbook includes 120 of the store’s most-loved recipes. Besides Grimes, the staff includes Lori Ward as sous chef, Cora Ray as baker and four or five rotating, part-time teenagers who work at the grocery after school and on weekends. “I had been running the farmer’s market in Water Valley for a couple of years, so I pretty much knew anyone who was growing anything. And our basic policy, especially on produce, is that if it’s growing around here and the store doesn’t currently have any, we will buy it. We ask farmers if they spray. We try to pay a little bit more for things that haven’t been treated. So it’s been a lot of fun—we’ve got everything from watermelons to shiitake mushrooms to those hydroponic tomatoes.”
B.T.C. is unique for many reasons, one being their faithfulness to buying local. Generally, they buy everything from a 20-mile radius. Also, they include the grower’s name on their products to even more community connection since most of their customers live in town and know the growers personally. “I’m definitely more about buying local than I am about buying organic. Buying local, to me, is this beautiful circle of life. Like, if you want to live in this vibrant, small town, then you should spend your money in your small town. And we try to do that here,” van Buren explains. “We just don’t leave Water Valley for anything. Sometimes, people are surprised that my children are going to this school here and I’m like—‘this is where we live.’ And you can really get pretty much everything you need. I don’t know—when we lived in D.C., we went to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and that kind of thing. But here, and not just in terms of groceries—I really like small stores. I like having that connection with people.” It’s in no way surprising that van Buren and her family feel content to stay within the confines of this small but charming town. Water Valley is reminiscent of one of those picturesque towns straight out of the 1950s. It’s compact but there’s a general bustling quality to it that’s surprisingly electrifying. The downtown is tidy, attractive and humming with the day-to-day lives of its citizens. And with stores like B.T.C., who needs anything else? “Everything’s so much easier—I feel bad for these people who’ll drive miles and miles and miles and stand in lines and lines and lines to save a few dollars. It just does not seem like a great trade-off to me,” van Buren continues.
She makes an aside, saying that she absolutely hates standing in lines, and that she never has to do it anymore. She subscribes to the theory of quality over quantity and the enjoyment of the smaller and quieter things that make life its most pleasurable. “I’m a big proponent of shopping where you live if you like your town and want it to succeed. Now, if it’s not available locally, I don’t feel bad about buying it from somewhere else. I don’t think you have to limit yourself, I just think you have to deliberate a little bit.” The down-home quality and the comfort that only the locally grown and lovingly prepared food gives you is often overlooked. The venue is far more than a store or watering hole for its customers—it’s a place built on community, for the community and the celebration of the bounty that the land can provide.