“We’ll stop by the store,” he’d say. That was a generic term for one of the handful of stores I routinely visited. The reasons were many or few and far between, other than to possibly drop in just to see who else was there. When the door was opened a bell usually rang. Walking in, you most likely found the owner or a designated family member was usually working the register or re-stocking. Invariably, the wife was running the deli or grill. Country stores, general stores, or simply “the store” were the quintessential staple in the country. Though many are just shadows of their former selves, there is, however, a small revival of interest in bringing back to life what once was the perfect picture of life in the rural areas of the country. Whether on his way or returning from work or play, my grandpa often stopped at a store.
Back in the days where one’s handshake was as good as their word, and their word you could take to the bank, country stores thrived as a business and a community meeting house of sorts. The locals and regulars often placed their purchases on credit, which was paid off on certain intervals, often a mutually agreed upon schedule between the owner and client. Whereas one person may pay the balance off each month, another may pay weekly. I don’t think I ever saw my grandpa use a credit card. Cash was his preferred method of payment, though on rare occasions I’d see him write a check.
Each store had its own character, but similarities prevailed. The porch. Whether it be concrete with stone pillars or one with rough hewn boards and a tin roof, no proper store was without a porch. On the porch you’d most likely find wooden benches or rocking chairs. A few simply had lawn chairs scattered about and a fancy porch might have a swing. Men in overalls, greasy shirts, and dusty or muddy boots would be seen sitting or leaning against a rail conversing while smoking a cigarette or cigar. My grandpa preferred cigars, but he rarely smoked them and instead chewed on the end until it was whittled away to nothing. Sometimes I would take him hours to finish just one. I can still smell a new box of King Edward, his favorite.
Tin signs hung all over the store, inside and out, advertising everything you could think of. Sometimes I wondered if the store owners were paid to hang them when I never saw the product the sign was advertising on the shelves. Most often I’d see signs for various foods, oil, seeds, tobacco, tools, and tractors. Rarely did one portray anything that would’ve been of interest to many women, at the time.
My grandpa usually took me with him to go fishing, help him mow a large yard that required two lawnmowers, or as an extra set of hand for a plumbing job. When I was young, I was affectionately referred to as his monkey. I was the runner who went to grab tools from the truck or held something in place while he soddered it. If we’d be gone through lunch or dinner time we always stopped for food to either eat then or take with us. One particular store had the best deli. You could order a sandwich off the menu or tell them exactly what you wanted and they’d make it. There were no flatbreads, rolls, or subs. You bought a sandwich. The store with my favorite deli had two picnic tables in the back where we’d sometimes eat. During the summer, the vegetables were brought in fresh from local farmers. Local apples, peaches, and plums would be sitting in oak barrels or bushel baskets. Occasionally, on orders from my grandma, we’d buy extra cheese to take back home. It was sharp cheddar cheese, but she always called it fat cheese. Another store that we didn’t go to very often had a grill. I’d take a cheeseburger or piece of fried chicken from there over any gourmet offering. The smell of cooked bacon and sausage that caused the thin smoke to cling to the air inside tempted everyone that walked in the front door during the morning hours. Homemade bacon, egg, cheese biscuits was my standard.
Sometimes after we’d been trout fishing by the mountains in the fall or winter we’d stop by the store on our way home. We’d always get a snack, but I believe the real purpose of the stop was to announce to anyone there we’d had a good day of fishing. If there was proof, it was usually produced for everyone to see and comment on. When someone bagged a large buck, it would be almost criminal not to show it off before taking it home or to the butcher to process. When it was cold, I liked stopping there to sit by the potbelly wood stove and warm up. I felt useful when I threw a log or two onto the dim flames and watched them flare up as the fire roared again. There were several chairs in a circle around the stove and small tin cans where discarded peanut shells were dropped. Huge open burlap sacks of peanuts were rolled down as customers scooped out peanuts to purchase by the pound. Beside the sacks was a long chest cooler full of Coca-Colas in glass bottles. Never Pepsi, just Coke.
The conversations held on the porch or around the stove were always of crops, gardens, hunting and fishing, politics, or the weather. The camaraderie of these old-timers couldn’t be broken. If there was nothing to talk about, they were all still just as comfortable and happy sitting there saying nothing, relinquishing their own thoughts to no one but themselves. Almost everyone had a driving hat, slouch hat, or trucker hat and they reminded me of characters in a group playing cards.
I’ve been to some of the new country and general stores and while they bring back memories, they’re still not quite the same. Maybe it’s because I grew up when they were almost a necessity. Maybe it’s because I miss the people that treated me like their own grandson. If you’re ever out in the rural parts and have yet to experience “the store” I’d recommend stopping in if you come across one. Get something to eat and don’t be shy- talk to the people. Because now that I reflect on it, it truly was the people that helped make it the experience it was for me.