It all started in 1961, just this side of the Arizona–New Mexico border near Window Rock. San Cristobal native Flora Jackson, then in her mid-30s, purchased a 1953 Travelite travel trailer and opened a restaurant, Flora's Cafe, inside it.
"She was having a nervous breakdown, and they said she needed something to do," said daughter Virginia Jackson. "She saw the diner and said, 'This is what I want to do.'"
Complete with swivel-chairs and a counter that ran down the middle of the long, aluminum-skinned trailer, Flora's Cafe was frequented by workers building a major power line transmission project in the 1960s, as well as Native Americans from the Navajo Reservation that surrounds Window Rock.
"She was 'Flo' back then," Virginia Jackson said, chuckling.
"Flo" ran the restaurant in Window Rock for more than 20 years before moving the trailer back to her native San Cristobal, where she reopened the diner as a general store.
"Before my husband got sick and passed away in 1994, he said, 'I'll take you back to live back where I found you,'" in San Cristobal, Flora Jackson said, grinning.
Now, at 97 years old, Flora Jackson says she will soon close the Valley Store — a San Cristobal landmark that's been housed in that same 1953 travel trailer for the past four decades — for good. Her family and customers are less certain.
"I can't do nothing anymore — I even forget my name sometimes," she said, a twinkle in her eyes contradicting the notion that her faculties are anything but intact. On a Thursday two weeks ago, customers trickled in to pick up the Taos News. She greeted each one by name, chatted with most of them and made change.
Enriqueta Vasquez, an author, poet and veteran of the Chicano rights movement, stops by the Valley Store every Thursday to pick up a copy of the Taos News. When she purchased the Sept. 1 edition, she handed Flora Jackson a bag of cilantro from her garden.
"I just picked it," Vasquez told Flora Vasquez, dropping coins on the counter to pay for her newspaper, adding, "I always give you an extra coin."
Flora Jackson recalled working on an ammunitions assembly line in Denver during World War II, when she was a machinist tasked with "grinding the bombs," or adding threads to bomb shells. After the military-related factory jobs for women ceased when the war came to an end, she returned to San Cristobal, where she heard that an existing general store (the name of which she doesn't recall) was for sale. "My momma said they wanted to sell that store, so I bought it," she said.
While tending her first San Cristobal store, Flora Jackson — whose maiden name is Cordova — recalled that a man named George Jackson used to come in for cigarettes on credit. "He was a construction worker putting the piling in for the bridge there between here and Questa," Flora Jackson said. "My [soon-to-be] husband worked on that highway, the 522."
Behind the old lunch counter inside the Valley Store are cabinets posted with several vintage signs commonly seen in mom-and-pop businesses back in the 1970s. One sign states: "We have an agreement with the banks. They won't sell our goods, we won't cash checks or give credit."
But Flora Jackson was always more flexible about her store's credit policy than the signs let on.
"He used to stop by and come in and get cigarettes on credit until he got paid," she said, laughing.
"What she told us was that she gave him credit and he couldn't pay — so they got married," added Virginia Jackson, the oldest of George and Flora Jackson's three children — the rest of whom were boys.
Landing back in San Cristobal in 1983, she and her husband had intended to reopen Flora's Cafe there.
"They wouldn't allow her to hook up to the water," Virginia Jackson said. "So my dad just put in that wall, and that's storage back there, and then this became the store."
Flora Jackson kept regular business hours for the first couple of decades, but then the product deliveries she relied on started to dry up. Before big box stores and vertical integration became commonplace, mom-and-pop stores across the U.S. used to buy various products from many different suppliers.
"The milkman stopped coming because she didn't order enough and it was too much of a trip," Virginia Jackson recalled. "The bread man used to come out; Tom's used to sell candy bars, gum and all of that. And then we went for years and years, every time we went to town, to the stores to get the candy bars and gum. She kept it going."
With the help of her son and neighbor, John Jackson, Flora Jackson generally only opens the Valley Store on Thursdays now — expressly so she can sell the local newspaper and socialize with her neighbors.
"I don't know if I'm going to sell it again next summer — if I'm even still here," Flora Jackson said frankly. "I've sold it for a long time. When I first moved over here I used to sell about 30 of 'em," whereas these days she goes through a dozen or less. The nonagenarian is reluctant to close down her business entirely, but doesn't think it's fair to ask her children to give up their Thursdays in order to help her out at the Valley Store.
"She's been saying that for a while," Virginia Jackson said, rolling her eyes at the thought of her mother doing anything on Thursday that didn't involve sitting behind the Valley Store counter selling newspapers.
Asked what she would do in retirement, Flora Jackson had very few ideas. "Go crazy and die right quick?" she suggested without missing a beat, sending her daughter into stitches of laughter. "I'm used to being around people all the time and now I have to sit around at home without anybody to talk to all day."
Surrounded by family in San Cristobal, Flora Jackson may be slightly exaggerating her plight. Her son, John, and his wife, Joanna Jackson, live nearby, as does their daughter. A grand niece is visiting through the end of this week.
"I hate to quit," Flora Jackson said. "But what can you do?"