On a recent afternoon, Laura Strohm sidled into Buck Moore Feed & Supply on North Lamar Boulevard. She pretended to be in distress and on the verge of tears, or maybe she wasn’t pretending at all.
“Noooo,” she wailed. “This better just be a real long we’re-closing-for-the-holidays thing.”
Ken Bushong looked at the floor and shook his head sadly.
Strohm groaned. “I know it makes sense,” she said. “But I don’t like it.”
Strohm has been coming to this tiny agriculture supply store incongruously located in the heart of North Austin for years to buy feed and treats for her backyard chickens. But ever since Buck Moore announced that it would be shutting its doors for good after nearly a half-century of business, she has struggled to imagine a future without its splintered wooden bins of feed, vegetable and herb seeds in glass jars, ancient metal scales and battered black-and-white checked linoleum floor.
“Now I’ll probably have to go to a” — she twists her face up like she has bitten into a head of kale — “Tractor Supply.”
There is no mistaking Buck’s for the under-glass version of country living on display at big box stores. Visitors are walloped by a pungent blast of feed and animal the moment they walk in. Over the years Buck’s has been forced to make concessions to its increasingly urban clientele — pricey dog food and organic chicken feed have replaced the lamb, cattle and horse feed that once filled the back room. But it doesn’t sell blue jeans with rhinestone swirls on the back pockets, taco shell-shaped cowboy concert hats or Texas welcome mats with the word “folks” sewn in.
“Buck didn’t like to modernize,” said Ken, his son-in-law. John, Ken’s son, nods: “It took us 10 years to convince him to take credit cards.”
Though Buck died in 2010, his descendants remain hesitant to offend his view of a world in which most change is unnecessary. Sales are still tallied on the mechanical Burroughs adding machine. Clerks ring up purchases on the mini-refrigerator-sized 1923 NCR cash register, which coughs and shudders like a stalling Buick each time the wooden drawer groans open. “We oil it about once every 10 years,” John said.
That makes five lube jobs since Buck’s opened for business in July 1972. By then, Burnet native Everett “Buck” Moore had apprenticed at many of the city’s feed operations. He worked for Central Feed & Seed, on South Congress Avenue (now Güero’s Taco Bar), before moving on to Austin Feed & Ranch Supply, on Third and Neches streets (where the convention center is now). He later signed on with Tomlinson’s until he decided to strike off on his own.
“Back then, there was plenty of business for everybody” said Ken. Buck purchased a small single-story building on the east side of 52nd Street and Lamar from Derden Wofford, owner of Derden’s Pet Store.
Three years later, newly discharged from the Air Force, Ken agreed to help his father-in-law unload a truck. “I haven’t been able to leave since,” he said.
His son John joined him 20 years later, dropping out of the University of Texas’s engineering program after determining a life staring at AutoCAD lacked an essential ingredient. “I like people,” he said.
At first, most of Buck’s customers were farmers and ranchers. In the 1990s, though, the Austin-area farming economy seemed to collapse all of a sudden. Pushed farther from the city, the ag community stopped making the drive to Buck Moore. “We went through a period of selling only 10 bags of chicken feed a week,” Ken recalled.
But Buck’s motto was “I can do without your business but I can’t do without your friendship,” and Ken made sure to spend time listening to customers. He noticed something: More and more Austin residents seemed interested in chickens and had particular preferences in what they ate.
“They were definitely the first place in Austin, and probably in Texas, to sell organic chicken feed,” said Michelle Hernandez, founder of the Austin and Central Texas Backyard Poultry Meetup Group. “Way before it was hip.”
When Hernandez started the Funky Chicken Coop Tour, the store became the unofficial, then official headquarters. Buck’s, she said, “is a little piece of magic.”
As it happened, Austin’s chickens probably saved Buck’s, as well. Today, the store sells about 10 tons of organic chicken feed every week to the city’s rapidly growing urban farmer population.
How do you grow something?
Persisting as an essentially rural enterprise in one of the fastest growing cities in the country has meant the occasional culture clash. Frat brothers have asked to borrow animals. (“No,” John said. “Always no.”) One caller wondered if Buck’s rented waterproof chaps. (“I don’t even want to know,” John said.)
Mostly, though, it’s sincere questions from people who have grown up without any understanding what it means to raise an animal or grow an edible plant. One woman asked when chickens decide whether they want to be a rooster or a hen.
“Others come in and look at our seeds and say, ‘I’m ready to start growing something. How do you grow something?’” Ken said.
“It’s hard to believe people reached this point in their lives,” John added. “It’s not that they’re idiots. They just don’t know better.” He’s pleased to sell to them. But it concerns him, too: “If we ever had anything like the Great Depression again, a lot of people would die. They don’t even think of putting a seed in the ground.”
As a result, in recent years, Buck’s has been the kind of place where knowledgeable advice is traded as much as merchandise. “We don’t consider it our job to sell things,” Ken said. “It’s our job to solve problems. I mean, if someone comes in and demands something they don’t need, we’ll sell it to them, of course. But we’ve talked a lot of people out of things they don’t need.”
Buck’s has donated seeds to local schools for their gardens for years. Ken’s wife took turkeys from the store into classrooms just to remind children their dinner had another form before it appeared under gravy.
“I haven’t ever had a question they couldn’t answer,” said Holly Hendrix, who has been coming to the store since she raised lambs as a Future Farmers of America member at Lanier High School four decades ago. “When I was thinking about raising ducks, they warned me about how messy they are. I didn’t listen. And they were right.”
“I could go into a chain store and buy products, no question,” added Hernandez. “Buck Moore is more than that.”
Such feelings inspire loyalty, and even Buck’s family has been surprised by the reaction to their announcement the store would close in February, which has drawn 18,000 views on Facebook. People from California and New York have offered their best wishes, recollections and pleas for reconsideration.
But the property taxes keep climbing. In 2000, the land and building was assessed at $156,000. It took 13 years for that to double. Three years later, it doubled again. The city’s stratospheric growth has also meant John’s commute has bogged into a 1.5-hour drive.
Today, the only recognizable business remaining from Buck’s opening day is the gas station just to the north. Where the Camden Lamar Heights apartments now tower, kitty-corner from the feed shop, was a little travel court, long gone. To the south was a yellow farm house, now a low-slung concrete office building. Across the street to the south was Miller’s Trading Post, and, next to that, Leslie’s Chicken Shack. Now, all are only memories.
The Chief Drive-In Theater, a few blocks north, closed a year after Buck’s opened. South was Taco Flats, where jalapeno eating contests were so popular, many nearby shops didn’t bother opening for business, knowing their parking spaces would be swarmed by taco customers anyway.
Not Buck. “One day Mayor Carole Rylander pulled up in her limo and Buck run her off,” Ken said. “She was mad.”
Other celebrities fared better. Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s former press secretary, was a regular. “Liz — I guess I shouldn’t call her that. We try not to be too overtly friendly with people — she fed deer,” Ken recalled. A regular stream of musicians wandering out of Richard’s Music next door stopped by. Willie Nelson visited.
“This was the edge of the city back then,” Ken said. “But Austin grew past us.”