This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
SALEM – Colors, creativity and a whole lot of history — both of the space, and the people inside — come together at the crossroads of Routes 19, K and B in rural Dent County, where the sight of an old general store may make folks do a double-take.
But instead of fading signs for former times, like of Coca-Cola or similar calls to its past life, paint proclaims “Airbrush & Tiedye,” and “Cool Gifts,” and multi-colored, brightly-hued sheets wave on the line like a carnival barker.
I know it may cause folks to look twice — because that’s what my eyes did on a recent drive into Salem. When slowing at the crossroads, around five miles south of town, I felt compelled to do a quick twist of the wheel and head back to the little stop, where I got out to learn more.
Across the threshold, past a couple of pups, I met Laura Miller with an airbrush in hand.
“It’s been a store for probably 80 or 90 years. See where the ceiling is different? That was the post office in Doss,” says Laura of a nearly nonexistent town today that was once down the road.
“A lady came in here one time and told us she watched them pull this building up here with mules.”
It had a good cistern nearby, she says, and people historically came to the spot for water. Eventually, it was also turned into a gas station and later became a general store.
“Some people consider this to be the first gas station in Salem, even though it’s away from Salem,” says Curt, Laura’s significant other, who opted not to give his last name.
Laura’s original link with the Ozarks ties to her grandparents, who moved to the Salem area in 1945. She spent time living hereabouts off and on throughout her younger years, a period when a love of art began to color her life — and after seeing someone with an airbrush, she was mesmerized.
“‘That is magic,’” recalls Laura of what she thought back then. “And right behind that thought was, ‘I could do that.’”
Going on 30 years after she first practiced on scraps, the magic is still there.
“I point my finger and color happens like mad,” she says. “And it comes out so dang good I can’t believe I did it. You know, the airbrush is awesome like that, because it’s about highlight and shadow, highlight and shadow, and you can get your gradients so good.”
Curt entered the local picture around 15 years ago when he came to the area from California to visit his parents, who had moved to Salem. When it comes to art, the couple says they balance each other, especially given his history as a welder.
“I like to say, honestly, that together we produce a better artwork than either of us separately,” says Laura. “I mean, it’s like, ‘I don’t need him and I don’t have to have you.’ But my work is better with his involvement.”
Laura hasn’t always sold her work at the store. Years ago, she had a booth in a yard along Highway 19, and the couple also were vendors at nearby Camp Zoe, a former event venue that today has been transformed into Echo Bluff State Park.
Her desire to have a “brick-and-mortar” store — and “location, location, location,” she says — led her years ago to the abandoned general store now known as Laura’s Corner Airbrush & Tiedye.
“I rented it as-is — no running water, outhouse,” she says. “We put in the outhouse; it’s primitive.”
But to them, it was perfect. And eventually, they bought it.
“(The former owner) really enjoyed it because people around town would tell him how nice the place looked because we mowed and everything,” says Laura. “And the place is beautiful. We’re just coming out of winter doldrums right now. But when it’s all mowed, and the flowers are blooming, the shabby shack doesn’t look so bad.”
Laura and Curt speak from the studio space in the store, still complete with the old stove now turned table for art supplies. Bedsheets, dresses and shirts are only a few options that fill other rooms. Laura also does custom orders — and all tie in with her joy at not doing what people want, but instead surpassing their expectations.
“The most fun thing of all is to make something that someone has an expectation of,” she says. “And I make it for them, and give it to them, and it so far exceeds their imagination. That is so fun.
“And the little kids — I used to do face painting for $1. They’re expecting just like a normal, regular little face painting, and I do something really cool. And then I hand them the mirror. Oh, my god, that’s priceless. I would pay $1 to see their little faces that are so pleased.”
While the business has a Facebook presence, Laura says that she hasn’t gotten much into online commerce. Not because she’s opposed to it, but just because there isn’t enough time to manage that aspect in addition to all else she does, which also includes business ventures aside from the store.
Instead, their customers typically visit them in person. That traffic will soon increase due to the summer season and the shop’s proximity to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
“Another month from now, there’ll be a caravan of people coming through here. All kinds of people — citizens, hippies and everything in between,” says Curt. “And veterans — we’re veteran-friendly.”
“We rely on tourists,” adds Laura. “Locals, yeah, we’re getting some local business, but I don’t think we…”
“Probably not enough local business to keep the place afloat,” says Curt.
One has to ask if there has been skepticism from locals along the way given stereotypes.
“The beauty of this place is people who look at this place and go, ‘Ew, tie-dye,’ drive right on by,” says Laura. “And the people who look at it and go, ‘Oh, that place looks cool,’ invariably are nice people. So it’s a very self-selecting clientele.
“I’ve worked cash registers before, you know, and you deal with the public. And dealing with the public really sucks because, you know, it’s just whoever needs to buy gas or whatever. But these are not people who need something. These are people who stopped because they have time and think it’s interesting. And these are nice people.”
But the couple also has good local connections, too. The business is part of the Salem chamber; Laura pulls out a photo album that has photos of murals she’s painted at the town’s school. It’s part of being connected with the community and — despite differences in ideology and perception at times — finding common ground, especially in days of national division.
“I had to start studying how to talk to people, when all this started coming about, and what I came to is that the bottom line is people really want the same things when you get down to it,” she says. “You want a safe place to live, a safe school to send your kids to, a job that you can get a two-week vacation from a year.
“And so steer towards what you have in common — there will be something in common.”