She saved a beloved Pinelands store; now 'time to pack it in'

Owner Marilyn Schmidt bought the Chatsworth General Store - long known as Buzby's - when she was 70. Schmidt, an author and artist, is now 87 and in failing health, so has decided to sell.

R. Marilyn Schmidt, who rescued a Pinelands institution and has become one herself, is selling her beloved business and moving on.

"I've had some heart problems," explains the accomplished, erudite proprietor of the Chatsworth General Store.

Long known as Buzby's, after the family that ran it beginning in the late 19th century and through much of the 20th, the store was built in 1865.

Schmidt, who acquired it in the late 1990s, has been trying to sell the place for several years, but her failing health finally gave her no choice but to close it May 21.

"It's been fun," she says. "But it's time to pack it in."

The author, artist, and retired pharmacologist bought and renovated the building in the heart of the Burlington County hamlet of Chatsworth in the late 1990s.

"It had been vacant for seven years, and it was a mess," Schmidt recalls, sitting in her apartment above the store. "But I fell in love with it."

A New Jersey native, Schmidt grew up in East Brunswick, ran a Princeton-area consulting firm, and got to know Chatsworth while living in Barnegat Light.

"I'm a self-publisher, specializing in seafood cooking books, and when I came to sell them at the Chatsworth Cranberry Festival, I always ate breakfast here," she says.

Schmidt is frail, speaks softly, and tires easily, but she's delightfully blunt. And blessed with a wry wit.

"Some people thought I was crazy to buy this place, some dumb broad who didn't know what she was doing. And I really didn't know how to run a store. I didn't even know how to run a cash register.

"But I like a challenge, and I loved what the store had been - a lifeline for the Pines. They sold everything here, from shotgun shells to penny candy. I still have the original candy counter."

When Schmidt restored the building and revived the business, she was 70 years old. She's 87 now and returned home a few weeks ago after being hospitalized ("I call it 'being incarcerated,' " she says with a laugh) for several months.

"I'll be going to a life-care community, not that I particularly want to," Schmidt says. "It's the only sensible thing to do."

Her property at the intersection of County Routes 563 and 532 - a.k.a. First and Main Streets - is listed for sale at $425,000.

The store remains closed but will be open during the annual Chatsworth Cranberry Festival on Oct. 15 and 16, Schmidt's friend Linda Stanton says.

"I adore her," says Stanton, a Mullica Township resident and the founder of the annual Lines on the Pines cultural festival. "She's a living legend."

Diane Murphy, who lives in Chatsworth and helps Schmidt with medical appointments and other tasks, agrees.

"Marilyn has been an asset to the town," Murphy says, adding, "The store was in ruins, and she saved it. She restored a big part of [local] history."

Indeed: Schmidt has donated her archive of Buzby-era receipts and other records of the store to the South Jersey Culture and History Center at Stockton University, where the material is included in the special collections of the Richard E. Bjork Library.

"I wanted the store to be a Pinelands resource center," she tells me, suggesting I go downstairs and take a look at a map.

Pushpins mark the states and countries of origin for visitors, who have come to Chatsworth from every continent except Antarctica.

The shelves, meanwhile, hold local products as well as a library's worth of books about the Pinelands, including Piney Talk, a lexicon of local slang, and other publications written by Schmidt.

"I knew what books to buy," the author notes, and sure enough, paperback copies of John McPhee's The Pine Barrens are on prominent display.

The 1967 classic is credited with helping boost political efforts to permanently protect the Pines from development, including a proposed "jetport."

McPhee also devotes much of a chapter titled "The Capital of the Pines" to Buzby's and its cast of local characters, who would come in for a soda or a newspaper, sit on a radiator (it's still there), and chew the fat.

"It was a great gathering place. It really was the center of everyone's world," says J. Garfield DeMarco, 78, whose family members were prominent Pinelands cranberry farmers for generations.

DeMarco says he has met Schmidt, admires what she has done with the store, and is sad to see her leave the community.

So is Robyn Bednar, who on the day I visit is busy serving customers at Hot Diggidy Dog, an outdoor eatery across the street from the Chatsworth General Store.

"The townspeople love having the store here, and they hope to keep it going," Bednar says, adding, "Marilyn did a wonderful job, all because of her love the Pines."

People have responded in kind, she notes.

"When she was in the hospital, people kept stopping by to ask me, 'How is she? When is she coming back?' It's nice that Marilyn made so many connections."

Schmidt is grateful for the outpouring of affection ("I never expected it"). She also intends to keep on working on her latest book - about the deer-hunting clubs that once were common across the Pines.

"I've loved introducing people to this unique area, and I've left something to the community." she says.

"But it's time."

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