The Lee Robinson General Store in Hatteras village will be celebrating 70 years of business this fall, a feat not easily achieved in such an isolated fishing village, and which owners atribute to hard work, innovation, and giving back to the community.
While Virgil and Belinda Willis have owned and operated the store for 45 years, Mr. Lee Robinson himself established the store in 1948.
Robinson, born and raised in Hatteras village in the 1890s, was a commercial fisherman who experienced solid success fishing with pound nets during the Great Depression. When his brother decided to quit fishing with him years into their careers, however, Robinson traded in his nets for a hammer and nails. Built before the time of cars and paved roads, the store was mainly intended to be a place where the fishermen could sit and talk on bad weather days. Though originally just a hangout spot, the store provided not only a social gathering venue, but also needed supplies for the community.
Virgil grew up around the original store his whole life because his mom worked there, and he and his wife Belinda took over ownership in 1973. The two decided to build a new store behind the old one in 1988 when they realized that the older style of construction, complete with an uneven roof, would not be able to withstand many more years of business.
This is not the only change the store has undergone throughout the years, however. In the 1960s and 1970s, when a reporter from The Coastland Times began circulating enticing images of all that the island had to offer, tourists began flooding in. Hatteras village seemed to go from an isolated fishing village to a tourist destination overnight.
Then, of course, there was the national economic downturn beginning in 2004 when people were losing jobs and consumers were scared to spend. There were also setbacks in the 2000s and 2010s from storms like Isabel and Irene wreaking havoc on local businesses. Though Lee Robinson’s has never been flooded, Belinda and Virgil – like all businesses on the island – have suffered major losses of income due to evacuations. Additionally, high wind and water levels from Hurricane Matthew damaged the store’s outside refrigerator. It is no surprise, then, that keeping the business going throughout the years has been trying at times.
Indeed, owning a business that is both seasonal and so dependent on the weather is certainly “not for the faint of heart,” Belinda said.
Despite all of this change, Lee Robinson has remained steady by adapting with the times.
“It’s like second nature to us now. We like to try new things,” Belinda said.
Items sold in the store have ebbed and flowed over the years, from fishing and tackle gear to beach goods. However, one thing remains the same: the people.
Lee Robinson has a variety of unique things to offer these days, like beach apparel, books, enticing gifts, fudge, homemade jams and jellies, and wine tastings, as well as Sticky Bottom Produce stand that’s situated just across the street. Despite all of these accommodations, however, Belinda and Virgil believe that the real reason thousands of tourists return each year is to receive a warm greeting from familiar faces. Indeed, the store seems to resonate with people more than any chain store could. Belinda is constantly getting more and more followers and hears from people throughout the winter through the store’s Facebook page.
“The store is so personal to them,” Betsy, a long-time employee said about tourists’ love for Lee Robinson.
“Basically, we want a place people can come in and enjoy and feel good about it for the whole family,” said Belinda.
Belinda and Virgil’s first and foremost priority, however, is to their local community – a fact made obvious by the items they choose to carry in their store. For instance, the store has always had grocery items, primarily because Belinda and Virgil enjoy providing that service to the village. Additionally, a majority of the items in the store are from local vendors or North Carolina businesses, which the pair like to help promote in their early stages of operation.
Belinda and Virgil also donate money each year to organizations affecting Hatteras Island, such as Radio Hatteras, thereby maintaining the original spirit of the store by bringing the community together and helping out those in need.
“We are into helping our community, Hatteras village especially,” said Belinda.
The store has plans to celebrate its 70th anniversary just before this year’s Day at the Docks celebration on September 14.
The event will simply be a chance to enjoy all of the services which the store has offered over the years, complete with distributor sales, live music, and a wine tasting.
“We’ve got a lot be thankful for,” said Virgil.