Senior Nostalgia: Remembering the General Store

Senior Nostalgia: Remembering the General Store

If you’re a senior who grew up in a small town, especially in a rural area, chances are good that you remember the general store. Sometimes it was called the corner store, the five and dime, or even the country store. More often than not, it was just “the store.”

Whatever it was called, you recognized it the moment you saw it. Most of them had a wide porch and a door with a welcoming bell – you might even remember the way the screen door sounded when it whacked against the frame. The store might have had a pot-bellied stove to heat up the winter days. There could have been a radio tuned to a favorite local channel. There was always chatter, sometimes bartering, and enough penny candy to delight the neighborhood children.

There was a time when the general store was the most happening place in a community. This was the place where you could get anything – quite literally.1 From fabric to make dresses to pantry food items and even animal feed, the earliest general stores stocked a little bit of everything a household might need. Whatever was in season at the local farms was piled high in bins. If you needed your knives sharpened or a repair on a small hand appliance, there was probably someone there who could help you.

Many general stores also served as the local post office, and they could order anything you wanted from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. or JC Penney catalogs.2

Besides that, the general store contained more gossip than you could ever find on Facebook today. It was not only a gathering place for friends, but also a place to get advice, talk about community events, and barter goods for services, or vice versa. The general store was the heartbeat of the town.

It also served to knit together folks in the community. The gossip that flowed around the pot-bellied stove might have been saucy, but it could also be helpful. Sometimes that intel served to sound the alarm for someone in the community who needed some extra help. Well before there were such things as medical alert pendants for senior safety, there were neighbors checking up on each other, and the talk at the general store was often a reminder to make sure someone stopped by for a little visit on their way home to make sure neighbors in need were doing alright.

The History of the General Store

The earliest general stores were actually trading posts. These were established sites along trade routes that were used by the Native Americans during the earliest days of colonial life. These trading posts became the central location of trade between the colonists and the Native Americans. Though some posts focused only on a few items, such as furs, others expanded to include a wide variety of goods.3

After the Civil War, the southern states had a greater need for general stores than ever before. With train lines disrupted and difficulty getting goods into the hardest-hit areas, commerce was difficult. The general store served as a central place where the locals could get the things they needed without worrying about whether traveling salesmen could get to them. When the train lines were restored and new ones built, new towns began to pop up, and the general store was at the heart of them.4

What Happened to the General Store?

The general store was a thriving locale for anyone who needed anything. But slowly, bigger stores began to move in. They brought with them the power of buying in bulk and often from foreign manufacturers for a cheaper price than the goods most general stores carried. Eventually bigger stores came in to replace the five and dime, offering even lower prices. The result was an exodus from the general store toward the big-box stores, where quantities were abundant and prices were cheap.

Many general stores vanished. But some morphed into the convenience stores we know today – the ones that serve up fuel for your vehicles and often some dubious fuel for your body, too (hot dogs and nachos). Those convenience stores carry a little bit of a lot of things, but they pale in comparison to the general stores of old.

Some general stores do still exist, however. And some are absolutely booming. If you’re in the mood for a road trip, check out these gems:

·         Old Village Mercantile in Caledonia, Missouri (established in 1909)

·         Shaw’s General Store in Stowe, Vermont (established in 1895)

·         Cooke City Store in Cooke City, Montana (established in 1886)

·         Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina (established in 1883)

·         The Brick Store in Bath, New Hampshire (established circa 1790, making it the oldest continuously operated general store in the nation).5

What about Specialty Shops?

General stores offered many things, but in decades past there were specialty stores as well. These were often home to the kind of professionals who could provide very specific provisions.

The butcher was a home cook’s best friend. Custom cuts of beef plus advice on how to cook it, trimmings and bones to make broth or feed pets, and customer service that went above and beyond were staples of the butcher shop. A good butcher was an expert at their craft, not only knowing everything there was to know about the anatomy of an animal, but how to cut the meat with a discerning hand and understand the best way to prepare the resulting dish.6

The fishmonger was also a welcome addition to communities. Much like a butcher, the fishmonger had to know everything about the anatomy of a wide variety of fish and seafood, understanding how to prepare delicacies and keep up with what was fresh – a significant feat when dealing with a product that could spoil so quickly.

The milkman was a daily staple around town. According to The Dairy Alliance, the milkman became a necessity as families began living in more urban areas and needed someone to supply them with milk on a daily basis.The appearance of grocery stores with refrigerated coolers and home refrigerators in the 1940s and 1950s meant that the deliveries of milk quickly dwindled, but some of us still remember the delightful sound of the milk bottles clinking together as the milkman set them on the porch.8

If You’re Old Enough to Remember the General Store…

Are you old enough to remember that refreshing sound of a soda being popped open by the metal opener hanging off the side of a cooler? Do you recall the wide planks of the front porch of the store and the laughter of the local men and women who gathered there? Do you remember wandering through the aisles and looking at more than you could imagine anyone could ever need?

If you’re old enough to remember that, you’re old enough to know that life moves fast. And though the slower pace of life back then is something to reminisce about and certainly miss, the new technology brought by the changing times has been a boon to safety and security. Medical alert technology for seniors are life-saving systems that allow you to call for help at the touch of a button. An advanced medical alert system with fall detection is even more of a safety net for those who want to live independently as long as possible, as tiny fall sensors in the device can alert a 24/7 monitoring center to a fall even if someone is injured and can’t press the emergency button alarm themselves.

Why not combine the best of both worlds? Take a road trip to see some of the most nostalgic general stores you can imagine. As you take a walk down memory lane, make sure to wear a medical alert watch or pendant to give you the peace of mind you need to enjoy the memories you love so much. And while you’re there, get some of that penny candy you enjoyed as a kid, explore every shelf for hidden treasures, and grab a soda from the cooler on your way out – just make sure it’s in a glass bottle, the way it used to be.