With store, website, woman lives ideal of community, local economy

Mandy Henderson and her daughter, Autumn, stop by Tammy Drennan’s store and hangout in Fort Oglethorpe.

Tammy Drennan’s store in the little Georgia town of Fort Oglethorpe has very much a homemade look. It’s full of inexpensive cards,150 kinds of Dover art books, volumes from Mrs. Drennan’s personal library, Fort O magnets, puzzles, cookbooks and local crafts.

Home is partly the idea of her store and hangout, FortOgeorgia.com. Mrs. Drennan offers herself to residents of the area as a small fountain of the human touch and relationship that seems to be absent for many. Schools are mass institutions in which denizens sometimes feel alienated. The Internet is an impersonal network that sometimes flattens out its users and makes children monotonous, satisfied with grunts and monosyllabic replies.

Mrs. Drennan, the mother of two grown sons and a widow for two years, runs her shop and website with the idea of enhancing people’s soulkeeping and giving them a sense of identification with Fort Oglethorpe, a town once largely taken up with prisoner internment and troop training facilities of the U.S. military. Just over 9,000 people in the town just south of Chattanooga call the town home.

“I want to provide a venue for people to compensate for what they aren’t getting in other places or for the damages that have been done to them by well-meaning but misguided approaches to living and learning,” she says, wearing her signature battered painter’s cap.

Says a neighboring business owner, shoestore operator Jerry Sear: “She’s a nice, kind, sweet person and she gets along with people.” Mrs. Drennan is all about conversation.

In January 2011 she had launched a community website, FortOGeorgia.com, but after seeing she couldn’t make a living from it, she turned to the idea of a storefront. She opened the shop in March. Being a shopkeep also brought advantages to her frame of mind that being a webmaster didn’t. It gave her more connection with people.

“The electronic world does not satisfy the social and emotional needs people have,” she says.

Undoing damage of modernity

A sense of mission drives Mrs. Drennan, who tootles about in an older-model sedan with her domain name hand-painted on the sides and rear. She appears at city council meetings and shows up with camera and notepad at “cruise-ins” held several times a year. While she knows many people who work in city government, she doesn’t cover news on her website because she doesn’t want to inadvertently become a partisan. Not a journalist, she wants to favor everybody.

Young people smile after having put on a play for themselves on the stage at Tammy Drennan’s cultural hangout.

She is a hometown booster, but not of the kind that many hometown newspapers are whose gloss on all this is favorable. Many boosters issue only positive vibes, give blind favor to the object of their care, believe their own PR spin as if good news were never to be contrasted to evil. Mrs. Drennan is conscious of antithesis., but sometimes afterwards is worried about how it may sound.

Profit seems almost out of view amid the crowded aisles of FortOGeorgia.com, where Mrs. Drennan is merchant. More important to her are relationships with families and individuals who come to hang out. She insists she’s not a community center, but a center of community, one with an artistic and literary flavor.

“Hangout is important because I want people to feel they are welcome here, to spend time here,” she says. A family with four children shows up and spends several hours. The children draw, act on her stage, draw. The dad will heed her suggestion and read a speech from a Shakespeare play. Adults are put to work, straightening her merchandise, checking prices on eBay. Children become attached to her, she says, crying out, “Can I have a hug? Can I love you?”

She hopes to advance the artistic skills of young people, who often are able to depict only  cartoonish computer game avatars.

“If you suggest they draw something else, they can’t think of anything else to draw. If they are under 12, they go wild. They draw all kinds of creative stuff on the stage [floor]. After 12, it’s hard for them to reground themselves and try something else after saturation of Web culture that says here’s how things look on the Web.” Limits on artistic use of one’s hands, she fears, impose intellectual limits, as well.

Rediscovering the art of conversation

Another imposition of the electronic age upon human relations is the increased discounting of conversation. She recounts seeing at a Colonnade event a group of deaf people. “They have what the rest of us used to have to a large extent, and we’ve lost. They have their facial expressions. They have their gestures. *** They’re excited about what they say. Now, nobody’s excited about what they say.”

Worse, people often devote conversation to meaningless subjects, she says. In the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, commoners at a tavern could argue points for hours, even days. But attention spans today are short. “I feel intellectually starved a lot of times because a lot of times I have trouble finding somebody to have a truly worthwhile intelligent conversation with, somebody who can go the distance in a conversation. That is getting harder and harder to find.” She tells of two scientists who put the substance of a yearslong debate into a delightful book. “People are hungry for something deeper like that,” Mrs. Drennan says.

Mrs. Drennan was years active in home education and is a freelance writer about education. Many people leave school with diplomas but are shy of the intellectual tools or reading skills to enhance their creativity. “People are hungry for it,” Mrs. Drennan says. “That’s what I keep finding. People are hungry for it. We have these brains with these incredible capacities. Why are we constantly trying to beat them down and subdue them as if they’re our enemy?”

Mrs. Drennan has standards in her store which sometimes visitors and shoppers violate. Mrs. Drennan looks askance at graphic novel-type art that children bring into the store or try to create. “I compliment on their skills and then I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, that art is not coming in my store.’ Because that’s not what this store is about. And you know something? They all understand. They don’t take offense. But they don’t know what else to do because no one has given them any other options. And I want to give them other options here. They’re human beings’ hunger for beauty. And they hunger for what is good.

“I know they have their negative side too — they hunger for what is bad, too. But I always tell people when it comes to raising kids, if you want your kids to turn out to be pretty good kids, instead of constantly telling your kids, ‘Don’t do this; don’t do [that]; that’s is bad; this is a sin, that is a sin,’ Instead, fill them up with so much good stuff that you crowd out — that there’s no room left for the bad stuff. There’s so little room left that they have to work for the bad stuff instead of the other way around where they have to work for the good stuff.”

Grace underpins lococentrism

The concept of grace from Christianity is part of Mrs. Drennan’s outlook. American culture is atomized, its people scattered from family roots and hometowns, disconnected from each other by pursuit of the dollar and status. Mrs. Drennan’s idea is to establish relationships with people and get them to see how valuable and enriching relationships are. Email, texting, Facebook and other telecom forms of networking are at best pale substitutes for in-flesh relationships.

Relationships invite an exercise in grace. They require forbearance of others, a willingness to deal with other people where they are, and to provide encouragement and a listening ear in a context most suitable to them. Relationships aren’t about me. They are about you. The concept of grace in Christianity is exactly that: Thinking of the other. Christ went so far as to die for his enemies, aliens — the other.

Grace is about “good human relationships,” she says. “That’s what you want community to be. Good human relationships. Treating other people well. Treating other people with grace *** by cutting them slack, accepting they may be in a place in their life that you don’t know, or that you are not capable of understanding.” Grace is being able to accept another person and overlook their slights against you, though they may not be slights at all, she says. “They’re just going through a rough time.”

Mrs. Drennan’s ideas about grace drive her boosterism. She recognizes that physicality is part of life, and if God has put people to reside in Fort Oglethorpe, they are to feel that they belong and are meant to live in relationship with other people put in the same circumstance.

“This is our town. Let’s be proud of it. Let’s make it into something. Let’s stop waiting for the government to do it for us.”

Young people smile after having put on a play for themselves on the stage at Tammy Drennan’s cultural hangout.

Cyclists with sidecars chat at the most recent Fort Oglethorpe cruise-in.

Tammy Drennan’s website is full of photos of local people as she tries to create a greater sense of belonging among Fort Oglethorpe residents.