Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Old Gray House, Buxton N.C.

“This is a paper nautilus. It’s only called a nautilus – a real nautilus shell has chambers.” It was the closest moment I’ve had to feeling like a five year old since that time I met an astronaut a few years back. I hung in the doorway of the tiny room as the old gray haired man continued the grand tour. I was in the third of four “shell shacks” on the property - this one a virtual museum dedicated to rare and unusual seashells. Dewy Parr, a grandfatherly man with the heart of a teacher, was in his element as he taught his current class; a group of tourists that hung on his every word, myself included. “An argonauta (a type of octopus) will come to the surface of the water and lay it’s eggs in here and then sit on top of it until they hatch. The shells are so frail that it’s extremely rare find one in perfect condition.” He lifted the glass box that sheltered the egg case and gingerly held it in his hands. “The Greeks named the animal after the Argonauts. When they saw the mother octopus sailing on top of one of these shells they associated her with their mythical ship the Argo. This is how the name Argonauta came into being.”

Tucked beneath the mossy oak trees and seashell-lined walking paths, Dewy and his wife Mary have developed one of the most unique places on the map I have ever seen. My wife Ellie and I were originally only going to stop in for a few minutes after spotting the weathered wood sign pointing back a side street off of Route 12. What we quickly realized is that someone could easily spend the better part of the day here. How do you describe a place that has a shop with the widest selection of seashells you have ever seen, a house full of vintage souvenirs, a museum dedicated to the history of Hatteras Island, and a self-guided tour featuring op/ed pieces on the value of feral cats? (Amongst other things.) Welcome to The Old Gray House Gift Shop in Buxton N.C.

“Over there I have the worlds largest conch shell. We’re not even allow to bring those into the U.S. anymore.” Dewy moved on the next stop on the tour. If first impressions mean anything, then I was hooked.

When I first arrived I took a walk around “The Path,” a garden that Dewy keeps for travelers to find a little rest. If you take a few minutes to read the articles posted every so often you’ll discover the wit and wisdom of Dewy Parr, a walking treasure trove of knowledge on many subjects, including the history of the island and it’s people, and one piece that especially caught my eye that discussed the benefits of feral cats:

What is the solution to the feral cat problem?
Studies have proven that trap-neuter-release is the single most successful method of stabilizing and maintaining healthy feral cats colonies with the least possible cost to local governments and residents, whiles providing the best life for the animals themselves…

Lost in an acre of land, convinced that I’d stumble into Narnia around the next corner, I was smiling, relaxed and truly enjoying myself for the first time in a long time. I think this is part of Dewy and Mary’s dream. The Old Gray House isn’t just a store - it’s a place to learn and catch up with the part of yourself that you lost a while ago.

Realizing that I had lost my wife, I thought I should go looking for her and find out how much this little excursion was going to cost me. She was inside, wide-eyed in her own dreamers paradise, browsing one of the many rooms filled with vintage nick-knacks, art, and other island souvenirs. Ellie held a box of vintage pushpins that looked like bees and she was eyeing the necklaces. “Do you like the cameo or the locket better?”

While Ellie was debating over her purchases, I struck up a conversation with Dewy’s wife Mary who was sitting behind the counter. Mary, a woman with her own interesting stories to tell, was born and raised in West Virginia. She worked as an accountant at Marshall University until she retired. “Well, Dewy grew up here on the Banks but he moved up to Huntington. Dewy was a fifth grade teacher.” (Which suddenly explained a lot.) She went on to tell me about their life in the Ohio Valley, and how moving back to the Banks was something they had always wanted to do. “So after we retired we moved back out here, and converted his Grandparents old house into the store.” They have been at it now for about 10 years. Incidentally, their 53rd wedding anniversary was a few weeks back.

After an hour or so, Ellie and I decided it was time for us to leave, though I could have stayed all day. We made our final purchases, which wound up being about $7.50 for our bag full of stuff. “And you thought you were going to be spending real money today, didn’t you?” Mary chuckled as she handed me my change.

My recommendation? If you are looking for seashells, this is the store to buy them. You will find the largest variety of seashells you have ever seen at the best prices on the island. But not only that, you will learn about the species, history and the significance of the shells you find.

You can find The Old Gray House off of Route 12 in Buxton. Turn onto Light Plant Road, across from Connors Supermarket. It’s the first house past the Pines Motel - you can’t miss it.
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