In the small upstate New York village where I grew up there were two small grocery stores. The majority of shopping was once or twice a month at the supermarkets in the larger towns, but for immediate needs there was: Wilber’s General Store and Coote’s Market.
Wilber’s was directly across the street from the school so the kids who lived in town and walked to school were allowed to cross the street at lunch hour but those of us who took the bus had to have parental permission to “go over town.” In high school we quickly learned to finesse that! Wilber’s was a large two-story clapboard building with wooden floors and screen doors front and back. It was a large building with big windows and two stories of offices above – my uncle had a law office upstairs for a few years.
The grocery section at Wilber’s was entered from the miniscule parking lot in the back. It carried produce and milk and meat and all the usual grocery items but I don’t remember ever buying groceries there. The front of the store was larger and really was a general store: books and cards, school supplies and toys, and even some clothes. The front was where we shopped at lunch time: a very large candy counter in the front and an ice cream cooler to the left of the main door were the primary attractions. I bought my first make up at Wilber’s on an illicitt lunch hour trip – Pond’s Angel Face in a little blue compact.
My family almost always shopped at Coote’s on the way home from church on Sunday. Charlie and Evelyn, Mr. and Mrs. Coote to us, gave local families credit – not credit cards – but accounts where the items and costs would be recorded and then paid up later. I know Mom and Pop took advantage of it because frequently one of us was sent to pick up something and say, “Mom, Pop said it was okay to ask you to put this on our account.” The store was basically the ell of a two-story house reached by 4-5 steps to the porch (The house is still there on Main Street, painted a different color and slightly run down.)
Coote’s had a meat refrigerator with a scale on top and produce in baskets on a shelf in front of it. The canned and packaged goods were on shelves that reached all the way to the ceiling and a small rack of cards near the front door, an in the far corner near the entrance to the house, behind the ice cream cooler, shelves for personal hygiene products, a rack of school supplies, comic books and paper dolls. If the store was empty when we went in, soon enough Charlie came through a connecting glass door from his house. He stood behind the wooden counter that had just enough room to stack up purchases surrounded by the candy and gum racks and opposite him was the baked goods rack.
I did my first and, I think, my only shoplifting at Coote’s: a pack of gum that I lost an hour later playing on a friend’s lawn. Not only was I guilt-ridden but I couldn’t even enjoy my ill-gotten gains or claim it as mine! I’d have been asked where I got the money!
My parents probably bought their cigarettes at Coote’s and in the summer he would order us a 5-pound box of First Prize hot dogs for summer cookouts. We also picked up the Sunday paper – my parents were New York Times readers. There are still some small towns in which you can reserve the out-of-town papers and pick them up as we did, from special stack with each person’s name of the top. (Fly Creek, NY near Cooperstown, Cornwall Bridge, CT near Kent, and Hanover, ME near Bethel.)
Who benefited from these little local stores? Everyone in town and the surrounding farms benefited from a store within a few miles for milk and bread and toilet paper or some potatoes and hamburger or spaghetti for dinner. I think my parents got a lot of their local “news” from talking with Charlie and Evelyn, they knew their customers. The money that the Wilber and Coote families made stayed primarily in town.
Current estimates are that over 60% of every dollar spent in a locally owned business stays in the community compared with approximately $40% from a national chain. That’s a compelling argument for supporting local business although most of the ‘Wilber’s and Coote’s –style” stores are gone, replaced by gas station convenience stores and big box stores.
Who benefits from the big box stores and online warehouses? Except for Costco as my friend Paul reminded me, most employees at the big box stores don’t make a living wage or have health insurance. http://www.theweek.com.