On the corner of two gravel roads, across from the northernmost post office in the lower 48, stands an unimposing general store that is open seven days a week, some 360 days a year. Somewhere else, those hours might be utterly unremarkable, but here, in an area that isn’t even a township and has only about 120 full-time residents, it’s a model of good business work ethic and a day-saver for the many customers who find what they need without having to travel to “town”.
Called “the little store” by some, “the corner store” by others and J&M General Store by owners Jeanette and Ron McAtee, this community- and tourism-centric business sells groceries, locally hand-crafted gift and household items, hardware and automotive parts, some building supplies, as well as propane and gasoline. It has storage units, a wash house in years past and a guest cabin or small rental apartment.
Jeanette and Ron, or “Mac” as he has come to be known, are the welcoming faces behind the counter for both locals on the hunt for an odd plumbing part or a forgotten grocery item and for world-wide travelors who visit solely because it’s the northernmost spot in the contiguous United States. These one-time visitors might purchase a postcard or gift, but more often than not, they stop just to ask questions and buy a soda.
“’Where’s the restaurant?’ is what they usually want to know,” Jeanette said.
She used to be able to point them in three different directions, but with the closure in the last decade of both Pine Creek Pub and Northpointe Bar and Grill (previously Grumpy’s), business on the West End has changed a lot. Many visitors to The Angle make that right-hand turn at Jim’s Corner and never bother to explore one short gravel mile in the opposite direction. There are even some long-time locals who have never set foot in the store.
That’s not the case for members of Band 33 and Windigo. The Native Americans and First Nations people are good customers for J&M, and the McAtees honor and appreciate their business. Regular customers aside, the hours get long and business ebbs and flows with the ice-conditions or summer weather.
Still, Jeanette and Mac live by a simple philosophy of doing their best at whatever they’re doing. “People have suggested shortening our hours, but if I’m going to do a job, I’m going to be here to do it right,” Jeanette said. They rarely close-up early and they do their best to meet the unspoken obligations a community holds for its general store, meaning, they keep stocked what people need most here in this remote outpost. Other items are kept on the shelves only one at a time and then replaced when it sells. “Some of the hardware can sit for years,” Jeanette said, “and then one day someone is SO glad we have it.” If grocery items get old, it goes home with Jeanette and she restocks it on their weekly Monday morning run to town.
For the last two decades, the little store has been their life. Already nearing retirement age when they arrived, they’ve weathered the inevitable ups and down of building a successful business in a remote and unpredictable tourism-based location like The Angle all while determinedly keeping the store open and true to the hours posted on its door. Through health scare upon health scare, their first full year together at The Angle was something akin to a biblical test; Mac underwent a triple bypass and then later contracted Hepatitis C, “which is like battling cancer,” Jeanette said. Over the years “we’ve had to meet the ambulance a time or two.” Through it all, she’s remained at her post as much as possible, even many times while Mac underwent treatment down in the Cities. The couple also tends to forego taking vacations.
Like many people, vacation was part of the reason they ended up at The Angle. The couple met when Mac, a native Texan, was stationed in North Dakota near where Jeanette was in college. After a short stint living back in the Lonestar State, the couple moved north again, and eventually discovered Lake of the Woods and the Northwest Angle. As many do, Mac (a “cityboy” as Jeanette described him) fell in love with the fishing and the wild and solitary beauty of the place. Later they would buy land and he would move here first to start a summer business.
Once the decision was made to become full-time residents, she knew she could never sit idle. “I needed to have something to do if I was going to live there,” she said. And when a different, short-lived general store closed its doors at The Angle, the McAtees saw their answer.
They started with storage units and golf cart rentals (their land is directly across the road from The Angle’s nine-hole golf course). They added the hardware business and groceries, and Mac also repaired golf carts and was a Minn Kota dealer and authorized service center.
J&M even offered 24-hour gasoline for a short time, but the regular power outages made it too costly to maintain. Over the years they’ve sold Mac’s handmade furniture, had movie rentals, and they still keep a small corner for a donation-based book store. It raises several hundred dollars a year for The Angle’s school kids. They also do their part selling raffle tickets for a good cause before both the Snow Rally and Angle Days. The McAtees had an opportunity to sell beer, and though it would have been a boon to business, they passed it up. It wasn’t the direction they wanted to go.
These days, visitors will see a small black and red For Sale sign in the window of the store. Without any hullaballoo, the McAtees quietly put their Angle “baby” up for sale. At 77, both Jeanette and Mac are ready to be done being store owners. But the change won’t come without transition pains on both sides of the counter.
Jeanette admits she’ll have a hard time watching if any drastic changes are made to the business they built from nothing. It’s been their mainstay, as well as their connection to the pulse of the community. Meeting people from all over the world has been Jeanette’s favorite part. The residents, the long-time tourists who have become friends and the many explorers who simply need a place to stop and a person to answer their questions will surely miss what the McAtees have built. Especially if the store closes altogether.
The store is listed part and parcel with the house, garage, rental apartment and storage business. Jeanette and Mac said the right buyers haven’t yet come along but given the interest over the years, they’re confident everything will work out.
“You can’t buy it thinking you’ll get rich,” Jeanette said. But anyone who knows The Angle wouldn’t expect as much. Most likely, it will sell to someone who wants to be here and needs a way to eke out a living while living where they love. At least that’s what the McAtees hope; that’s how they did it after all.
The Angle hopes just as much right along with them.