Free Speech – Elegy for a small town store

Elegy for a small town store

When I took my future husband to meet my grandparents a few decades ago, my husband mentioned the small town that his parents were from. My grandfather’s eyes lit up and he said, “I know that town! When I was a young man, back in the early 30s, I drove an inner-city bus that ran on Route 40 between Columbus and Dayton. I used to stop there often and visit the little grocery store for their famous peppered bacon!”

That little family-owned grocery store is closing now. Our village will be without a grocery for the first time since the village was established.

My husband and I now live in that small town of 400, in the house that his great- grandfather built in 1899, not far from the grave of his German-immigrant ancestor who arrived a decade before the Civil War and his wife, the English immigrant who birthed their seven children.

This little village began as a stop on the National Road, the first highway constructed by the federal government in the early 19th century. It used to have a bank (where a couple, thought to be Bonnie and Clyde, once shot and killed a teller), a blacksmith shop (once owned by my husband’s great-grandfather, now owned by us), a tannery and a fabric and furniture reupholstering shop.

Now it’s down to two gas stations, a post office, a pizza place and not much else. They even tried to take the schools away in the last few elections, but they were voted down. The small number of rural routes that operate from the little post office in the grocery store parking lot are being sent to a larger branch, which makes little apparent economic sense. They have to bring the mail out to the boxes for the townsfolk anyway, but now the rural mail will be sorted 15 miles away and driven out to our local byways. Not much gas savings there, but obviously someone in management thinks it’s a good idea.

Our teenagers worked in the grocery. It was their first lesson in holding a job, in financial management, in relating to the public as a businessperson. Their pay went for college savings, computer parts, guitars, gas, insurance and more of the trappings of young life. My 17-year-old son is soon to be unemployed for the first time since he was 15.

The local reaction is quiet shock, punctuated by railing against modern ways and big box stores. Conversation at the post office is unsettled and distressed. One soon-to-be former clerk cries on the shoulder of the postmaster about the hardship that this will bring to her family. The owners, who have just sent their twin daughters to college, are not saying much.

Time marches on, and progress won’t stop. People can’t afford to buy groceries from a small store whose prices are good, but not as low as the Wal-Mart five miles down Route 40. But many families like ours were in and out of the small grocery every other day, buying milk, cold medicine, bananas, doughnuts and peppered bacon. They could even get their deer dressed there.

It’s hard not to feel guilty about the store’s demise, though. It’s a bit like the guilt I felt when the two bookstores at our county’s relatively small mall went under. I shopped there occasionally, but it seemed a bit daft to drive half an hour to get to a store that probably wouldn’t have what I wanted to read and who would charge me full retail, when I could click a few buttons and have the an enormous selection of books delivered to me at a major discount with free shipping. Same with many other goods. If I drive across the county, will they have the item I want in the size or color I want? I could call, but it quite often takes forever to get a human and they sometimes won’t hold the item for pick-up. Maybe it will be there when I get there, but if I find it online, I know that it will show up on my front porch a few days later.

I would never go on record saying that progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. And I certainly don’t want to save every old building that once housed a slightly famous person or funnel huge sums of money into businesses that are failing because of out-dated practices and products. But still, there should be some room for the small-but-useful alongside the humongous corporate sprawl.

Not to mention locally made peppered bacon!

Patti A. Miller

[Re: 11/3/10 Free Speech letter]

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