GRAVEL SWITCH, Ky. (FOX 56) — It’s not where you’d expect to find a store — in a field, way off the main road, all by itself in a place some might call the middle of nowhere. But people do find it.
Dawn Osborn, the current owner-operator of Penn’s Store, said, “We’ve had people from every state in the union and over 20 countries.”
Penn’s Store, which straddles the county lines of Boyle and Casey, has been around since at least 1845. Gabriel Jackson Penn bought it in 1850 and it’s been in the Penn family ever since.
“I’m now the 6th generation to operate the store,” said Osborn. Gabriel Penn was her great-great-great grandfather.
The country store has a little bit of everything, from cigarettes to shoe polish, soap to pickled eggs. It even still has penny candy. But it’s not a place where customers grab and go. They usually sit and chat around the wood-burning stove or take part in music sessions on the sagging porch.
The store is rustic, for sure, and Osborn knows she’d be in trouble with the locals if she tried to modernize it. In fact, she recently fixed a hole in the front screen door and caught some criticism for it. The long-held joke was that the hole was there so the flies could get out.
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“The store really almost has a soul of its own,” Osborn said. “I want people to experience what someone 100 years ago experienced when they walk through that door. ”
A century ago, there were more buildings around Penn’s Store, including a chicken coop because people would trade chickens for goods. But perhaps the most important building came in 1992 when they built an outhouse, the first public restroom facility ever. Penn’s Privy was the subject of magazine articles around the world and led to a festival called “The Great Outhouse Blowout.” It drew 4,000 visitors.
That exposure brought more tourists, so today many of the products on the shelves are geared toward one-time visitors, souvenir items such as T-shirts, caps, and mugs The store is an equal parts neighborhood market, gift shop, museum, and gathering place.
Tony Cooper, a musician who often plays guitar on the porch, said he always feels as if he’s home when he’s at the store.
“It’s just a wonderful place to come,” Cooper said. “They’ll treat you so many ways you got to like one of them. I’d love to see it stay here another 200 years.”
It may not last that long, but Osborn’s 21-year-old daughter, Olivia Graas, often works behind the counter and plans to be the seventh-generation Penn to keep the tradition alive, even though she’s about to go to law school.
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“I do again have my own aspirations,” Graas said. “But at the end of the day, I think Penn’s Store is something that’s going to be kept in this family for a long, long time.”
That’s music to the ears of longtime patrons who can’t imagine a future without this reminder of the past.
Regular hours for Penn’s Store have been reduced in recent years. Posted times are 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday. But Osborn encourages visitors to call ahead if they want to come at other times. She might be there and if she is, “the store is open.”
The address is 257 Penn’s Store Road, Gravel Switch, Kentucky.