Days of neighborhood stores passing us by

Looking Back with Lloyd Mathews, originally printed October 21, 1990

Remember when you used to go to the corner grocery store? There was one in every neighborhood back before the days of zoning, and they were mighty handy. These stores didn’t carry a great variety of items; just those most often asked for, like dry beans, potatoes, eggs, milk, cereal, and some canned goods. There wasn’t any fancy wrappings that made products inviting to the eye, but most were wrapped in brown paper after the purchase and tied with string. Lard was dipped from a large tub, and put in a white paper tray, and by the time one reached home with it a large part of it was soaked into the paper wrapping.

A large barrel of vinegar was equipped with a wooden faucet, and while the clerk went about other duties he would leave the customer’s jug under the faucet to fill. Sometimes he would forget, and vinegar would flow over the jug and onto the floor. There seemed to always be time for the clerk to have a little chat with each customer, and those who had to wait didn’t seem to mind. They would just go over to the soft drink cooler and pop a top from a big old Pepsi or a Coke, and empty a bag of Planter’s Peanuts in the bottle and enjoy a meal while they waited.

These stores most always had a big ring of cheese from which slabs were sliced and sold across the counter along with soda crackers to those who made regular stops for a noontime snack.

A barrel of salt fish was in every store, and on Saturday nights hardworking laborers would come by and get a supply of herring for Sunday breakfast. On the way out they might pick up a package of Wings cigarettes, or a bag of Golden Grain or Stud, or maybe a plug of Brown’s Mule or a can of Scotch Snuff. It’s strange that in those days tobacco never seemed to hurt anybody. Maybe everyone was just too relaxed.

It seemed like these little neighborhood stores never closed, except on Sunday, which was a time when about everything closed but the churches. At night time, instead of running off to Roanoke to a rock concert, village young people gathered at the store and sat on cracker barrels and wooden benches or wherever they could find a place, and listened to old men tell tall tales of long walks to school through knee-deep snowstorms.

Today’s young people are blessed with just about the best of anything they need or want, but I believe they are losing out on one of the great gifts by missing the experience of the neighborhood grocery store. There were lessons taught there that no school could ever teach. The sharing of a soft drink or a candy bar when nickels were so scarce that everyone didn’t have one is just one lesson taught at the neighborhood grocery.

We are living in a different world today. I won’t say that what is taking place is bad, but it is sad. Every neighborhood small business that closes its doors is another small bit of Americana gone into oblivion. Most cities and towns have strict zoning laws that forbid re-opening little stores and shops in residential neighborhoods. Many or most of the youngsters will never get the opportunity to enjoy the pleasant memories of leaning over the candy counter and having to choose between Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls, or jawbreakers, as the best way to invest a penny.

Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t let this business of zoning go a little too far.

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