Holiday Time At The Old Country Store

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The double doors opened inward. The remainder of the front elevation was thickly covered by tin signs, each a memorial to the industry and aggressiveness of a tobacco drummer with a tack hammer and a line of good five-cent cigars. In the windows were a jumble of spectacles, notions, gilt jewelry, fine and coarse combs. They were just stored there, rather than displayed; but this was not too serious a lapse from alert merchandising, since there was no pedestrian traffic to speak of, no strangers to attract, and usually no other store to visit. Inside, while one adjusted to the change in light, there was a sense of the world’s good things in limitless profusion, long counters down either side, with rounded glass show cases spaced along on top of the counters, the whole length of the side walls lined with drawers, bins and shelves. Heavy hardware stood at the rear: rakes, hayforks, adzes, scythes. Buggy whips hung from the ceiling by a thread. The buyer made a careful selection, jerked his whip free, and it was his.

The ceiling was largely used for display, or at least storage. Corn poppers, lanterns, pails and kitchen ware dangled from hooks and wires. Lamp chimneys were racked up on wooden pegs. Festoons of dried apples, harness and horse collars all crowded in between the big oil lamps which went up and down on their chains and balances when it was necessary to light up the store or put out the lamps. The whole effect was rather on the dark side. There were no side windows, which increased the uncertainty of the customer and his sense of confusion. In general, the right side of the store might be called the ladies’ department. Here, toward the front, were ribbons, buttons, braids and fringes. On the shelves, piece goods by the bolt. Brass tacks were driven into the time-smoothed counter to mark an exact yard. (“Don’t hold it tip and guess. Get down to brass tacks.”) Here too were hooks and eyes, thread, and long black or white women’s hose, the two fashionable colors, year in and year out.

Farther back came the men’s wear: jeans, shirts, shoes, celluloid collars, suspenders and red flannel underwear. At the front, to the left side of the double doors, were the drugs and patent medicines, pipes, tobacco, and the knife for cutting off “eating” tobacco. (“Want a five-cent slice, or a ten-cent slice”) Groceries followed in the middle section, with the great wheel of Herkimer County cheese under its wire screen cage, the store fly trap, the kerosene peanut roaster and the coffee grinder. Then came china, crockery, the spice cabinets —with soaps, cartridges and shells, shoe blacking and horse medicine tucked into odd corners and wooden drawers. Often the customers could go more directly to a wanted item than the merchant himself, a first faint suggestion of the future opportunities for the self-service store! The tiny facade of the little post office squeezed in as best it could at front or rear, a source of modest revenue but great personal prestige to the storekeeper. It was also a convenient means for checking up on wayward customers who might be tempted by the catalogue “wish books” (“I wish I had a Daisy Air Rifle”) to send a money order off to one of the Chicago mail-order houses.

The first and, over the year, the most lasting impression upon the rural family as it entered the store came through the olfactory nerve. There was a fragrance which still stands out in memory above all else. Perhaps it was not exactly a fragrance, but more of an aroma, mellow and substantial. Considering some of its constituent parts, perhaps it was not much an aroma as a smell, the general store smell. All diarists and oldtimers agree that it was a well-dug-in odor, with lots of authority, a blend made up of the store’s inventory, the customers and the cat. Identifiable still, down memory’s lane, are the contributions of ripe cheese and sauerkraut, sweet pickles, the smell of bright paint on new toys, kerosene, lard and molasses, old onions and potatoes, poultry feed, gun oil, rubber boots, calico, dried fish, coffee, and “kept” eggs. Kept eggs meant—well, it was sort of a technical term. It meant eggs that should have been shipped off to the city some time ago but weren’t.

Tobacco smoke floated through the store in lazy layers. A suspicion of corn whiskey rose from among the gentry sitting stove-side. Or maybe it was just Hood’s Sarsaparilla. Taken daily in generous amounts, either before or alter meals, sarsaparilla enjoyed a great reputation as a tonic and body-builder. Since it contained sixteen and one-half per cent alcohol, the properties of the medicine were certain to make themselves felt if the patient followed the directions with enough enthusiasm. Only the “general line” store of years ago could have produced so cosmopolitan an odor, permanent the year ‘round, yet accented at Christmas time with spicy winter apples, the smell of oranges and toy paint.