Minding the store was one chore I didn’t mind, the summers I spent at Mimi’s house during my teen years. She always kept an ear out for the little bell hanging outside the store, but occasionally it rang when she was busy with more important chores, like removing the innards from a soon-to-be-supper chicken.
When the bell jingled at such times she’d call out, “Betts, go mind the store, please.” I enjoyed the responsibility that gave me, acting as store-keep for a while. It might be a farm wife looking for canned goods or gossip, or one of the local kids looking for an after-school soda pop and penny candy.
Mimi and Da had built the little country store next to their house on Stagecoach Road out in Florence County. It served near-by neighbors and farm hands with one gas pump, one kerosene pump, one cold drink box, one large refrigerator, one L-shaped counter, and shelves full of cans and bottles running across the back wall, floor to ceiling.
Pretty much quiet during the day, that small store was the center of attention come sundown. Farm and mill hands getting off from work but not quite ready to head home congregated in the sandy yard between house and store, R.C. Cola or Red Rock in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Job news, family news, girlfriend news, political news, all were topics of conversation as the men wound down from their day’s employments.
Lots of daylight left in the day meant time for a checker game. Pulled outside for more elbow room, an upturned barrel made a handy table top for the checker board. Pepsi-Cola or Red Rock bottle caps served as checker men (the real ones had vanished long ago). Potted meat and packs of nabs made do for pre-supper snacks during those sometimes extended games, the honor system keeping up with who ate what.
When supper had finished cooking indoors, Mimi and I kept a watch from the environs of the front porch. It just wasn’t lady-like for us “women folk” to mingle with the smelly, sweaty, sometimes laughing, sometimes swearing crowd of working men out in the yard. But, eventually they called it a day and headed home for supper, and while Da locked up the store Mimi and I headed for the kitchen to put our own supper on the table.
Mimi’s store to me was a fascinating place, so different from the A&P in town. Most of the eye-level shelf space housed canned soup and beans, vienna sausages, sardines and tuna, hot sauce and vinegar, boxes of salt and large cans of black pepper. A variety of smaller cans contained allspice or cinammon, sharing space with tiny bottles of vanilla, lemon or almond extract.
The counter-top level included a variety of health remedies like Stanback, BC or Goody Headache Powders and bottles of horrible-tasting black SSS spring tonic. I can still taste that dreadful stuff – Mimi insisted my brother and I partake of that tonic teaspoon by yukky teaspoon every year, until the bottle was mostly empty. (Or lost. Or missing. Or something.)
Next came bottles of rubbing alcohol and liniment, mercurochrome and iodine, band-aids and square packs of rolled bandages and strapping tape, assorted sewing needles and spools of black and white thread. Bicycle tire patches were somewhere along in there, as were the tubes of rubber cement to go with the patches.
For safety-sake (to prevent pilfering, that is), tobacco products were kept on the higher shelves and included Lucky Strikes, Camels, Old Golds – and my mother’s usual brand, Chesterfields.
Adjoining those you’d find sweet-smelling loose tobacco for pipes and cigarettes in thin oblong containers, alongside convenient packs of cigarette papers for folks who liked to “roll your own.” Of course, the favorite kid’s joke of the day was “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” “Yes…” “Well, you’d better let him out then!” Hahahaha!!
The refrigerator always contained a wheel of red wax-coated hoop cheese and a long tube of bologna, accompanied by a heavy and mostly-sharp butcher knife. Cartons of fresh-laid eggs, heads of cabbage or collards, occasionally a few other vegetables shared space from time to time with the cheese and bologna. A large scale for accurately weighing out the cheese and meat occupied the short counter, close by a roll of white butcher’s paper for wrapping the slices or chunks.
On the longest counter were huge glass jars containing assorted food stuffs. The best seller were large round cookies many of us used for “sandwich bread” on either side of hunks of cheese or bologna. Another good seller was pickled pigs feet. Little metal racks contained single-serving bags of pork rinds, potato chips, dry-roasted peanuts and packs of nabs. Other glass jars offered jaw-breakers, for the heartier kid’s sweet tooth.
Out in front of the store building were the gas and kerosene pumps, but customers pumped their own stuff, then came inside and notified me of how much they’d got.
An old-fashioned non-electric cash register sat in the middle of the longest counter, for the benefit of the very few customers who paid immediately for their purchases. The register wasn’t used to actually register anything, you did the adding yourself on slips of paper, then mashed a button to open the drawer, took their cash money and counted back their change.
A receipt book lay next to the register, with a page or two to record transactions of individual credit customers. That was most of the store patrons, actually, seeing that they worked on the farm or at granddaddy’s sawmill.
Come payday they would try to settle up their bill, a chore only carried out by Mimi herself. Many regular customers couldn’t pay the entire amount due at any one time, Mimi said. Better let her decide how much was reasonable, how much could wait.
Bad weather days meant no work, she pointed out. No work, no pay, and so the balance didn’t quite balance during many summer weeks. Sooner or later they’d catch it all up, she wasn’t worried about it.
Still and all, that was the life, I thought. Mostly laid-back and worry-free, I thought. And compared to what goes on in the world today, it sure seems as though it was. I miss that little wood building.