The Middle Distance 12.05.13: The Country Store

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5min 59sec
Waymires Store Interior by Stewarts Commercial Photographers,  October 1947. Copyright PPLD. Image Number: 013-1013.
Waymires Store Interior by Stewarts Commercial Photographers, October 1947. Copyright PPLD. Image Number: 013-1013.
Credit Sean Cayton

There’s a Facebook questionnaire circulating, asking participants to check off how many of 100 chosen worldwide destinations they’ve visited. I haven’t taken the quiz and if I did my score would be modest, even though I’ve visited some pretty exotic locales. But I find the older I get it’s not faraway places I long to see; I’m more drawn to places from the past, even if I have to recreate them strictly from stories passed down by family.

The place I’ve been visiting in my imagination this frigid December week is the neighborhood grocery store my grandmother and grandfather owned and operated in the tiny Kentucky town where my father spent his boyhood.

My father said my grandfather wasn’t cut out to run a grocery store during the Great Depression; he was too soft-hearted. It was the mid-1930s and in this small rural community barely anyone had a paying job or a market to buy their crops and livestock. Subsistence farming and hunting kept many families fed and Granddaddy’s store provided them pantry staples. For town folk, the store had a butcher counter, a big ice box and a long and flexible line of credit.

The picture I’ve conjured of this store is an amalgamation of the hundreds of country stores I visited as a child, riding along county highways with my father who stocked their shelves with aspirin and toothpaste before he moved into the supermarket business, or with my grandfather whose side business, when he became a farmer, was stocking those stores’ racks with toys. In my eyes, they were wondrous places with their splintered and buckled wood floors, thick glass jars of pickled eggs and animal parts, slapping screen doors, laughing men in overalls, zinc tubs of gleaming iced soft drinks, and ornate manual cash registers that shushed and dinged. A kid could happily pass a day in such a store where it seemed little happened beyond idle conversation by patrons huddled around a pot-bellied stove, a lot of spitting, and the tinkling of a bell signaling the arrival of an occasional customer.

My grandfather’s store sat near the tracks of the L&N — Louisville and Nashville — railroad, trains that passed frequently and stopped once a day. Billy, my father, hated school and loved working in the store in the afternoons, especially when he was allowed to sharpen the huge butcher’s knife and prepare cuts of meat to order.

Often in the late afternoon, he heard a faint tapping at the back door and answered it quickly before his mother could respond. A frugal woman, she saw no need for outside help and knew without seeing who was on the other side of the door. Outside, a man in dirty clothes who’d hopped off the train, a hobo, asked if there might be work in exchange for a bite to eat. Daddy summoned Granddaddy who handed the man a broom and asked him to sweet the walks, the front steps and the floors while Daddy prepared a sandwich as payment.

Billy cut thick slices of bologna from a long, fat ring and spread oleo margarine on two pieces of white bread. In addition to butchering, one of his jobs was to work yellow food coloring into large blocks of oleo when they arrived at the store pallid and colorless, to distinguish them from lard. His mother, who usually did the sweeping, concentrated on counting the money in the register and balancing accounts.

Daddy said you never saw anybody love a bologna sandwich as much as the hoboes who jumped off the L&N train. And as long as he owned the store, my grandfather never turned them away, but found a job for them — an unwritten and unspoken contract that distinguished between a handout and a meal earned. These were men down on their luck, he said, and he was lucky to be able to feed them.

I’ve been thinking about that store and those sandwiches and those men as the temperature has dropped this week to near zero and the news has been filled with the debate over raising the minimum wage to an actual living wage. It shames me to admit that if someone in dirty clothes arrived at my door, possibly seeking work in exchange for a meal, I would likely just not answer his knock.

Daddy said sometimes he watched as those men hopped onto a moving train, slowed to a crawl as it moved through town. He knew nothing about them or where they were going, only that he’d fixed them a bologna sandwich, something he never forgot as long as he lived.