History & Nostalgia

The Mast General Store

A Four-Decade Tradition 137 Years in the Making

By Keith Martin

On April 30, 2020 a delightful and heartfelt video popped up on social media marking the 40th Anniversary of that fateful day back in 1980 when Faye and John Cooper drove a U-Haul truck containing their life’s belongings to the High Country, accompanied by their two children and a family vehicle in tow. They stopped in front of the abandoned Mast Store in Valle Crucis, opened the door to the feed room, and walked inside a building that had stood vacant for over two and a half years. Faye turned to her husband and said, “What have we done?” before bursting into tears at the reality of the moment.

Forty years later, Mast General Store has eleven locations in four different states and provides a livelihood for 516 people, including 343 associates here in the High Country. In 1995, they became an employee-owned company and proudly count 253 current “Mast Family” members as owners.

Brenda Binning Lowman, former Mast Training and Event Coordinator, said, “From the first day the Mast General Store re-opened with Faye and John as owners, the foundation for a successful business was set. Everyone who walked through those front doors, staff or guest, young or old, was treated with respect and greeted with a smile. The tenets of grace, humility, kindness, and gratefulness coupled with hard work are ever present today. What a fine legacy!”

Sheri Moretz’s official title at Mast Store is “Storyteller,” but she is a certified Travel Marketing Professional (TMP), and a fount of knowledge, information, trivia, and fun facts about Mast General Store. Efforts to stump her were unsuccessful. What’s the most popular candy? “Caramel Bullseyes, with just under 23,000 pounds sold in 2019.” Best-selling apparel item? “For ten years in a row, it’s the Desert Pucker men’s shirt from Royal Robbins.” Favorite gift of shoppers? “The Handwarmer Mugs; we’ve sold more than 110,000 of this out-of-the-box design in the last decade.” 

More importantly, Moretz has become the unofficial historian for the Mast General Store, and is the primary author of all the wonderfully entertaining and lovingly detailed history that appears on the company’s website, mastgeneralstore.com. Following is an abbreviated version of the Mast story:

The original location was built by Henry Taylor and opened as the Taylor General Store in 1883, but it wasn’t long before he had to expand. In 1897, he sold half interest in the venture to William Wellington (W.W.) Mast, a member of another pioneer family in the Valle. The store was known as the Taylor and Mast General Store up until 1913, when the remaining half of the enterprise was purchased by W. W. Mast. From then on, the sign over the door has always had Mast in its name.

For the next sixty years, the store was owned and operated by the Mast Family. During that time, W. W. and his family tried to carry everything their neighbors needed… from plow points to cloth and cradles to caskets, which led to the popular saying, “If you can’t buy it here, you don’t need it.”

In 1930, W. W. signed a contract with Standard Oil in New Jersey to sell gasoline at the store. By the 1970s, the Mast Store was one of the company’s longest-term retailers. To this day, the Esso sign and gas pumps adorn the front of the original building.  

The store was sold by the Mast Family in 1973, around the time that the site was named to the National Register of Historic Places as “one of the finest remaining examples of an old country general store.” In November of 1977, the doors were closed, presumably just for the winter season with hopes of reopening the following April. However, those plans did not pan out.

The Coopers purchased the Mast Store and reopened it in June of 1980, little more than two months after they arrived in the High Country. Since that time the store had regained its reputation as “the store that has everything.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Their daughter Lisa Cooper currently serves as president of Mast General Store, assuming the position when her parents semi-retired in 2016. When asked to reflect upon the family business, Lisa said, “I grew up from behind the counter in the front room at the ‘Original’ Mast Store. That perspective has helped me tremendously in being able to lead the company forward. I watched; I learned; I listened. The bar set by my parents is very high, and together, with a great team, we strive to continue to raise that bar.”

In June 2020, Lisa will lead the company in dedicating their newest venue, and first in Virginia, when their Roanoke store opens this summer. She notes another expansion in Valle Crucis: “Rivercross Made in USA is Mast Store’s little sister with products that are 100% made in the United States.” While fully-owned and supported by the Mast General Store, Lisa proudly calls it, “my project.” She also inherited her parents’ love of the environment, exemplified in her decision to remove all drinks in plastic bottles from store shelves. As a result, Mast Store has already kept more than 20,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream.

Most recently, Lisa has appeared in a hilarious series of online videos during the COVID-19 pandemic as a means of keeping in touch with (and entertaining) the legions of Mast Store customers and fans. Favorites include “socially-distant candy shopping” with her daughter, Addison, and “choosing a hat to cover your roots,” all while providing updates of the carefully planned and thoughtfully implemented reopening of each store as stay-at-home restrictions were lifted on a phased basis in each state where stores are located.  

Without exception, every person interviewed for this article mentioned the generosity of both the Cooper family and Mast Store with the Valle Crucis Community Park as the most frequently cited example, followed by the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country. However, those two projects merely scratch the surface of their altruism.

It is estimated that their charitable giving supports over 100 non-profit organizations on an annual basis. In addition, all three Coopers serve on non-profit boards and are active in various civic organizations, a culture of service modeled by employees at every store. 

While reflecting on the occasion of their 40th Anniversary, the Coopers were asked about points of pride during their remarkable tenure. Faye answered, “We are proud of our immediate family and we are proud of our Mast family, those who earn their livelihood within the walls of Mast General Store’s locations. We are proud of the business that these two families together have built, the impact they have been able to make in their communities in areas of human services, arts, education, and environmental causes by supporting non-profits collectively and individually. We are thankful for our loyal customers who have provided us opportunities to serve in business and volunteer roles. We are thankful for parents who helped guide us into becoming concerned and caring citizens.”

Echoing his wife’s sentiments, John added, “We are most proud of the staff that has been the engine that has accomplished so much for our business and our communities.” On a personal note, John said, “We are very proud of our community that got behind the recent restoration, rehabilitation, and reopening of the historic Appalachian Theatre,” an eight-year, ten-million-dollar effort that involved over 500 volunteers and thousands of generous donors. John spearheaded the entire project as founding chair of the theatre’s board of trustees, a position he has held since the organizational meeting in 2011.

The final question asked of the Coopers was about their legacy, to which Faye replied, “The Mast Store as it is today is our business legacy, and our personal legacy is intertwined with it. The community should know that our philanthropic efforts began by seeing a need and helping to fulfill it, beginning with our thinking that someone should save this old store in the mountains of North Carolina.”

John said, “We would like our legacy to be that we were helpful in bringing back and perpetuating an important and historic institution, the Mast General Store. Our hope is that it will continue to be appreciated for its emphasis on excellence in customer service, caring support of our staff, and giving back to the communities it serves.”

Fittingly, the last word in this story goes to current Mast Store President Lisa Cooper. “When someone asks me about the future, I tell them to look at our past. We honor the traditions that my parents embraced and carry them forward every day. It is in our DNA to do the right thing in our communities. That starts with our personal service statement: ‘Do your personal best. Have fun and share it!’”

“The Mast General Store has long been a lighthouse for our community: a beacon for what it means to best care for our community and nurture our neighbors. Their team generously shares their time with various non-profit agencies, invests in the wellness of our people, and continues to prioritize deep rooted community engagement. The leadership they exemplify shines as a bright example to us all.”

~ Elizabeth Young, Executive Director,  Hunger and Health Coalition

“What strikes me about John and Faye Cooper is their complete lack of ego. They remember your name, always have smiling faces, time to talk to you, and Faye writes personal notes after seeing a story in the media. Their deep love for community can clearly be seen in the character of Mast General Store. They set the standard for corporate philanthropy; not only do they give, they give generously to reinvest in our community, and their support is unparalleled.” 

 ~ Jennifer Warren, Executive Director, Western Youth Network, Inc.

“It’s difficult to identify an area of community life in the High Country that has not been positively impacted by Mast General Store’s presence and philanthropic spirit. They were among the first group of businesses to become corporate sponsors for An Appalachian Summer Festival, and led the way for other enlightened business owners to embrace university arts programming and nurture its growth. The company’s devotion and long-standing support for the arts has been profoundly meaningful and transformational for our community.” 

~ Denise Ringler, Director of Arts Engagement and Cultural Resources, Appalachian State University

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