Chris Pennington slid the scratch-off ticket across the counter, repeating a ritual she'd performed hundreds of times. Hours later, she'd learn that her customer had won a six-figure surprise.
"I actually felt sick that day knowing I'd held $100,000 and gave it away," she said.
The manager of Will's Food Store in Mount Holly, Pennington has seen her share of others' good fortune. Will's boasts the most lottery payouts of any retailer in Gaston County, according to figures from the N.C. Education Lottery.
Customers walked away with $169,957 from July 4 through Jan. 2, and that doesn't include Pennington's $100,000 ticket, which she sold to a U.S. Postal Service employee in 2008.
"We're very thankful that a lot of the community has been fortunate enough to win the lottery," said owner Will Massey. "We hope we have more new customers every day."
Brittain's Food Mart on Hickory Grove Road outside Gastonia was a close second, with $168,563 in payouts during that time period. The third-luckiest retailer was Corner Grocery in Lowell, whose customers won $155,721.
Local figures only show how much money each retailer paid in winnings. Jackpots over a certain amount must be collected at an authorized lottery center, and the top prizes require a trip to lottery headquarters in Raleigh.
'Everyone is superstitious'
Will's is a community convenience store with a loyal and familiar clientele, Pennington said. Some regulars are avid lottery players, and many have their own routines for the games of chance.
"There are some who don't even want you to look at your ticket and some who ask you to rub it for luck," Pennington said. "I think everyone is a little superstitious in their own way."
Instant-win games and the Pick 3 drawing are among the most popular lottery offerings at Will's. Some customers believe the first or last card in a roll of scratch-off tickets is likely to be a winner, but Pennington said that myth has never been proven true.
As money changes hands and clenched coins rub furiously at the scratch-off cards, talk is likely to turn to giant cardboard checks, mansions and limousines — the spoils of victory.
"I think everyone has fun fantasizing about what they would do if they hit the Powerball," Pennington said. "I know me and my family do — we plan how we're going to spend the money."
The convenience store saw a steady trickle of new customers when lottery figures ranked it among the top 10 Gaston County retailers in winnings last year. While Will's reputation as a lucky lotto spot does boost business, Pennington credits friendly staff and loyal customers with the store's success.
"We do have a really good team here," she said. "You get that clientele that you can joke with, and they joke back. I think that's one of the biggest things to having a good store."
'Rainy day money'
Money hasn't changed Matthew Alton's life, but it has helped the 21-year-old auto mechanic chase his dream of roaring engines and squealing tires.
A year after claiming a $1 million Powerball jackpot, Alton said he used some of his winnings to compete on the drifting circuit. Drifting is a motor sport he describes as "an acrobatic show in a car," featuring spins that produce swirls of smoke.
"Next year, I should be starting my professional career in Formula D," said Alton, who is sponsored by BRE Motorsports in Concord. "I think I could have done it eventually, but winning kind of helped out."
Alton pocketed $680,000 after taxes, and the majority of his winnings are earning interest in the bank —"rainy day money," he calls it.
"When you know you've got close to half a million just chilling, it takes a load off your back," Alton said. "You don't have to worry about money nearly as much."
Alton has been involved in drifting for more than four years. He's taken his Mazda RX-7 to recent meets in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
He's fielded surprisingly few requests for loans and gifts to friends, probably because he doesn't discuss the lottery winnings.
"Most people don't know about it still," Alton said. "I try to kind of keep it on the down-low to people who don't know."
On New Year's Eve 2008, Alton purchased a Powerball ticket at the One Stop Grocery on Franklin Boulevard. He matched the five white balls, but not the Powerball. With an added Power Play bonus, his $200,000 win grew to a cool million.
Alton waited 12 days to claim his fortune and avoided publicity, allowing The Gazette to photograph him with the ceremonial cardboard check held over his face.
Gaston County's biggest winner rarely buys lottery tickets anymore. Alton said the last time he tried his luck was about two months ago.
"Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice," he said.
Check your store
The Gaston Gazette is providing a way for N.C. residents to check their lottery retailer's lottery prize payouts. Interested parties can go to the paper's Web site and enter the store information.
The form is located at http://local.gastongazette.com/caspio/lotto/.