Merritt’s Co-Owner Robin Britt, 1952-2014

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro community is mourning the recent passing of Robin Britt, co-owner of Merritt’s Store & Grill.

“I think they’re going to miss that mother figure that she provided in Chapel Hill. I mean, there’s not a lot of people that stand firm, and want to know people. And that’s what she was all about.”

That’s interior designer Lucinda Poole. She’s a close friend of Robin Britt, the co-owner of Merritt’s Store & Grill, a beloved Chapel Hill institution since 1929.

Robin Britt died on April 25, nine months after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was 61.

She was born Robin Noel in Richmond, Virginia on July 14, 1952 – Bastille Day, as she liked to remind friends and family. She loved all things French.

Her son, 25-year-old Charles Britt, moved to North Carolina from Manhattan in September to help out with managing the store after his mother was diagnosed.

He was there this past Monday morning, when Merritt’s was packed with customers who wanted to express their condolences and share memories. Some created a memorial by placing flowers, cards and stuffed animals on the bench in front of the store.

Some paid tribute by simply buying one of those famous BLTs that made Merritt’s a destination spot for foodies, as well as blue-collar workers or anyone else who just wanted the best sandwich in Chapel Hill.

Charles said that Robin put a lot of love into that BLT. She called it a “love sandwich.” She insisted on using locally sourced ingredients. And she put the same love and care into how the place looked, and how it felt to be there.

Robin Britt and her husband Bob took over the business back in 1991. In 2008, they decided to renovate Merritt’s to make it more of a sit-down, family-friendly atmosphere, which now includes live bluegrass music just about every weekend.

“She loves just the beauty in rustic things, and the beauty in people,” says Charles Britt. “And she wanted it to be more of a community and a gathering point. It really was her mission field to share God’s love just with the community, even if it’s just through a quick conversation or a pat on the back.”

Robin’s motto for Merritt’s was “Where the country meets the university.” And it truly is a melting pot, says Charles.

“You’d have the plumber sitting next to a psychiatrist, or a professor” says Charles. “And the conversation that would rise up out of that is just amazing.”

On Monday, a customer told Charles a story about a time Robin looked out the window of Merritt’s and spotted two fellows pushing a car up the hill on Columbia Street.

They came in to buy a drink, and she gave both of them jobs, on the spot.

Her friend Lucinda Poole recalls an outgoing person with a deep Christian faith, who treated everybody that came through Merritt’s door as a friend – and not in a superficial way. Robin Britt was genuinely interested in the lives of other people, their families, and how they were doing.

“People will say, ‘I met her once, and I’ve never forgotten it,’” says Poole. “And I said to her, ‘What do you do to people?’ And she said, ‘I always found that the most interesting thing about people is what they weren’t saying.’”

Charles Britt says that Robin held onto that faith and selfless regard for others all through her nine-month battle with cancer.

He says that was true even when she was bed-ridden during her final days.

“It was amazing that, even when she could hardly talk, her interest was in her visitors, and how to make them feel comforted, not herself” says Britt.

Crispy Bess is a local rock and roll guitar player in the bands Dexter Romweber and the New Romans, Killer Filler and Phatlynx.

He’s also something of an expert on great southern food. Years ago, he and his friend Hoppie Newton did a profile of Merritt’s for a short-lived show about barbecue on public access television.

From that day on, he says, Robin Britt treated Bess like a king every time he walked in the store. He’d get free food, a good table, and a heap of praise from Robin. He says that still floors him, to this day.

“I think that makes her, you know, truly exceptional,” he says. “You know, I cannot recall meeting anybody like that in my life before, and I think that we’re going to miss that.”

Robin Britt is survived by her husband Bob, and her sons Charles and Bobby.

A Celebration of Life is scheduled on May 25th at 3 p.m. at Aqueduct Conference Center in Chapel Hill.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that friends donate to the Robin Britt Memorial Fund. Charles says some of the money will go toward a memorial garden at the Aqueduct Conference Center. Some of it will go toward Robin Britt’s medical bills.

Remembering the Merritts of Merritt’s Store

If you mention Merritt’s Store anywhere around Chapel Hill, most often you will hear something like, “Oh yes. Best BLTs I’ve ever tasted.”

And it is true. A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich at Merritt’s Store, together with sweet iced tea flavored with the fresh mint growing in a box beside the store, is one of the great taste treats in my world, right up there with the peach cobbler at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro or a small chopped barbecue plate at Lexington #1.

But when you mention Merritt’s Store to me, I think of the first night I spent in Chapel Hill in a red brick house that once stood across the street. It was Thanksgiving 1958 and Wyndell Merritt, my fellow freshman at Davidson College, invited me to spend the weekend with his family in Chapel Hill.

There were no BLTs at Merritt’s Store back then. But Wyndell’s mom, Ruby, made us a wonderful breakfast every morning with scrambled eggs and some very good bacon, maybe as good as that in the BLTs at Merritt’s Store today. His dad, Eben, was the owner of the “filling station” and convenience store that was the Merritt’s Store of the day. Mr. Merritt spent most of his time at work at the store or running a small business hauling sand and gravel and excavating construction sites.

One of Eben Merritt’s passions was hunting, especially turkeys. That weekend he let Wyndell bring me along with a small hunting party of Mr. Merritt’s friends. I learned that Mr. Merritt could call, sight, and bring down a turkey before I could blink.

His love for hunting led him to buy many acres of old farm and forest land that sold cheap around Chapel Hill back then because it was no longer good for farming. Later on, that land made Mr. Merritt and his family financially secure.

My memories came rushing back last week when I learned that Ruby Hunt Merritt died, just a few days before her 105th birthday on May 18.

A few years ago, right after her 102nd birthday, I had a long conversation with Mrs. Merritt. She was alert and cheerful, telling me about growing up in Chatham County, where her father operated a sawmill. She met Eben Merritt when she was 18, and they were soon married, or as she said, “He gave me an ‘M.R.S.’ degree.” Eben Merritt bought the store, and they struggled through the depression. “It did not bother us much,” she told me, “since we didn’t have any money to begin with anyway.”

Last week at her service at Mount Carmel Baptist Church on the Orange-Chatham County line near Chapel Hill, the pastor, Dr. Dennis Hill, remembered some of the things she had done over the more that 80 years she had been a member. They included playing the piano every Sunday for most of those years, teaching Sunday School, leading prayer circles, changing diapers, and hauling children to and from the church, always looking out for children and one time even leaving the three-year-old Wyndell sleeping on the back pew, forgetting him while she took care of other people’s children. “She loved so many,” he said. “Wyndell was just one of them.”

Listening to him describe her life and how she put aside her own hardships and struggles to help others, I began to wonder how I would measure up at the end of my life. Dr. Hill must have known what I was thinking.

He assured us that we, too, could, like Mrs. Merritt, be “quick to forgive, be a light in others’ darkness, and be an instrument of God’s peace.”

And the next time somebody mentions Merritt’s Store, those words will come to mind along with the memories of my first visit there.

Note: A link to the entire conversation with Mrs. Merritt can be found here.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit their wepage.

This week’s (May 26, 30) guest is Duke Professor William Chafe’s author of “Bill and Hillary.”

In reviewing Duke Professor William Chafe’s  “Bill and Hillary,” Jonathan Yardley wrote, about the Clintons, “No personalities in recent history speak more compellingly to the importance of understanding that the personal and the political are inseparable.” Chafe’s detailed study of the relationship between the power couple of all power couples shows how their relationship shaped our history.

The program will also air at Wednesday May 29 at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). In addition, airing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday on UNC-MX will be a classic Bookwatch program featuring Jim Early author of “Tar Heel Barbecue.”

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