HOOPERS CREEK — Customers wander into Charlie Messer's store in a steady stream, handing him cash or a credit card for gas, buying a soft drink and a snack, hunting for a washer to fix a bathroom sink.
Sometimes they come in at 9 and stay all morning, offering observations on people and politics.
Every elected official gets free advice at the workplace, in the neighborhood and at gatherings around town. Few get feedback as steadily as Messer, a storekeeper who was elected chairman of the Board of Commissioners Monday for the first time.
Messer said he's talked to every county commissioner and feels confident that he will have the votes to lead the board.
"I didn't campaign for it," he said. "Other people did."
In November voters elected Messer, 58, to a fourth term as the commissioner representing the Fletcher and Hoopers Creek area. He has won handily in most of his elections, his popularity coming in part because he always knows where the people stand on every issue. Charlie's on the Creek, as the store is called, lacks a pot-bellied stove, a cracker barrel and six-ounce Coke bottles. Yet Charlie's feels like an old-country store because of its friendly proprietor.
"What are you up to today?" he asks a customer who orders a pack of cigarettes at lunchtime.
"Did you just get up?" he asks two women in their 20s.
"How you doing?" he asks a man in his 20s buying a six-pack of lime-flavored Budweiser. "You get off early?"
"Are things getting better over there?" he asks a worker from a nearby factory.
Fletcher and Hoopers Creek, like the rest of Henderson County, has grown a lot in recent years. Yet growth does not seem to have prevented Messer from knowing, or least knowing something about, all the customers that trade at Charlie's. In the span of 45 minutes, two customers showed him cell-phone photos of deer they'd bagged.
"I've got a mixture of people," he said, "not only running through the store but you've got the delivery people that deliver to Livingston Farms. A lot of tractor-trailers fill up here."
One of six children of J.D. and Dora Freeman Messer, Charlie grew up in Mills River and graduated from West Henderson High School. He and his wife, Sheila, a hairdresser, have two daughters, Shalon Pierce and Shauna Williams, and three grandsons.
Retail and politics
He's been in the retail business all his adult life, working his way up to assistant manager of the old Community Cash store in Hendersonville and later selling Keebler cookies before taking over the store in Hoopers Creek on Souther Road.
"I've always worked long hours," he says. "I mowed grass on the side" while working at Community Cash.
He usually works at his store 2-9 p.m. Sunday, 6:30 a.m.- 3 p.m. weekdays except Wednesdays (when he has a county commission and Pardee Board meeting). He's off Saturdays.
Wearing a ballcap, jeans and a sweatshirt, enjoying a plug of Wintergreen Copenhagen, Messer blends in with his customers. He stands on raised platform yet looks down on no one. He hears plenty about lost jobs, high gas prices, deer hunting or the Flat Rock Playhouse while he's making change.
When it comes to big county issues, he thinks Pardee Hospital is stabilized and in better shape with the new joint campus under way in Fletcher. As a member of the county's Recreation Advisory Board for 12 years, he is happy that the Board of Commissioners voted to upgrade ballfields at Jackson Park and acquire a gym and soccer field as part of the Hendersonville Christian School purchase. The 2013-14 budget, he says, "will probably be flatlined." Sitting on a $28 million fund balance, commissioners have no reason to even consider a tax increase.
Regional water and sewer will be a big issue in 2013. So will efforts to recruit jobs. A strong Republican, Messer hosted informal huddles at the store throughout the 2012 campaign season that included Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep.-elect Mark Meadows.
As chairman, Messer will be called on to explain issues, speak to the public and represent the board. Sometimes he follows a crooked path and travels up and down a few rabbit trails from the beginning of his sentences to the end.
"I probably need to work on that," he said. "I'm no politician. I never claimed to be a politician. I'm just a gentleman that works for the people of Henderson County and I've been fortunate that people trusted me or they wouldn't have elected me five times including Fletcher."