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Howevalley hangout destroyed by fire

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Customers wrap arms around owner in aftermath

By Marty Finley

A Howevalley convenience store where coffee drinkers convened to swap anecdotes was ravaged by fire Thursday night, chewing a hole in the roof and removing a popular social hub from the rural community. 

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Paula Crowder, owner of Bits and Pieces, lightheartedly described some of her customers as “the gossip connection” while she referred to others as “the college of knowledge” for their wisecracking antics.

The store on Ky. 86 stood charred Friday as neighbors and regulars gathered to exchange stories about its history and the conversations that took place within walls now blackened with ash and gutted by flames.

The door stood wide open, glass stained by a mixture of water and soot. Most merchandise was mangled and destroyed, a rack of cookies and other packaged sweets near the door retained their color and packaging in different levels of disarray.

Two ice boxes stood near the front door, undamaged in appearance. A sheet of metal siding peeled from the building and draped itself around the freezers like a soggy umbrella.

Russell Elliott, Crowder’s brother-in-law and occasional maintenance man for the building, walked inside Friday and found a money bucket the store posted for Brooklyn Disselkamp, an Elizabethtown toddler battling cancer. He salvaged the contents, which will help the family with medical bills.

“They could use all the help they can get right now,” Elliott said.

He talked with Cecil Butterworth, a self-described coffee drinker at the store, which had a dining area that served breakfast and lunch and offered pizza, among other things. Elliott said the store often had to invest in new coffeemakers to keep up with demand.

“I wore them out,” said Butterworth, 65, who recalls the building and its numerous uses as a service station and store dating back to his childhood.

“This was a hangout,” Elliott said.

Crowder closed at 9 p.m. Thursday and headed to her home about seven miles away, later hearing from neighbors that the store was engulfed by fire.

She held insurance on the building but was unsure how much was lost between property and inventory. A rental home she owns behind the store was unharmed.

“It’s going to be hard to assess the damage,” she said.

Less than 24 hours after the fire broke out, several customers offered condolences and inquired about reopening. All came in person to check on her, she said.

“Down here, nobody calls. They come in person,” she said. “We’re in a community that will stand with you. They’ll be there for you.”

In a low point, Crowder said the support is welcomed. She has owned the store for nearly 15 years but said it has been in business much longer.

On Friday, she was uncertain of her next move and whether she would rebuild.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s early on so I don’t know.”

Elliott said regulars will respect whatever decision she makes but he is confident the store’s return would be profitable.

“The store’s done good,” he said. “I’d say if she put it back up it would do just as good. Maybe even better.”

Ky. 86 Fire Department responded to the alarm around 10:05 p.m., closing Hardinsburg Road in both directions as it worked to control the fire, Chief Ryan Slaubaugh said. The department was assisted by Rineyville Fire Department, Hardin County EMS and the American Red Cross.

Hardin County Sheriff’s Office also responded to manage traffic, Slaubaugh said.

A preliminary investigation has not yielded the fire’s cause, he said, but the department planned to inspect the building’s electrical wiring and air conditioning unit as possible sources. The scene was cleared by 3 a.m. Friday, Slaubaugh said.

Breckinridge County resident Melinda Appleby was heading home when she passed the store and saw flames and smoke. She dialed 911 as her husband, Wesley, ran around back to bang on doors and warn neighbors.

“It was just a (fraction) of a second — smoke started rolling out of the front, back and all over the building,” she said.

The store was a convenience for her family as they stopped in at least once every two weeks to grab something they needed and to say hello.

“I hope that they do rebuild and I’m sure all the regulars are going to miss going in,” she said.

Marty Finleycan be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.