He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…
…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
my whole cock-eyed life –
what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”
During the COVID-19 quarantine, we’ve chosen to shop at small locally owned markets in our rural county rather than the large chain groceries we usually frequent. They are less busy, more personal and desperately need the business. As we walk in, we are greeted with “hi kids, let me know if I can help you find anything!” – there is something nice about two gray heads being called “kids” because in our hearts, we still are – see below.
Yesterday, the market cashier/manager noticed a cane that had been left in one of the aisles and said “oh, Harry must have left his cane behind again, I guess he won’t get too far without it so I’ll leave it right here by the door for when he comes to get it.”
You wanna go where everybody knows your name…
These stores make me think of the rural markets only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state. These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot. In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it’s called Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”
It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard. The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap. When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived. They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news. It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.
There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items. There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”, or “free puppies–take your choice.” This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.
Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall. Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.
The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects. Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.
Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.
The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins. I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers and red licorice whips.
The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me. We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.
Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road. It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads. We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up. My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.
On our visits to family in Japan, there are plenty of small family-owned corner markets in the huge cities, each with their own flavor and personality matching their owners. It’s good to see the persistence in the U.S. of small local markets that actually sell produce, not just convenience store beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area.
Just a few miles from us is a market owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors.
There is an orchard nearby that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.
We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys. This time of year there are lots of end-of-the-driveway vegetable and flower stands as farmers sell their wares on the honor system, with the money going into a lock box right there by the road.
It almost feels like going home again. When I walk into a small market, it is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to a wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news. That can’t happen with social distancing, but my hope is to help these markets survive for when, someday, we can sit and visit and learn each others’ names and stories.