“On the account, please”

Yesterday, I rushed out to Echo Bay to pick up a few groceries at Dinelles’ General Store, in preparation for my contribution to the three-day “writing binge” that began this morning at nine. (Three days of writing with half a dozen other writers in the little town of Thessalon—I mentioned these binges in an earlier post.) While I was in “The Bay”, I dropped off recycling at the roadside recycling bins, returned wine bottles to the depot beside the gas station, and filled the car with gas. I’ve been finding such routine outings particularly satisfying since we’ve decided not to move. I relish the small-town touches I came close to leaving behind. Even “Have a nice day”—which has become a meaningless refrain in most contexts—reminds me that this is where I belong.

At the wine bottle repository, I count my empty bottles (a number I’d prefer not to reveal), stack them with the others, and wander into the gas station to report the total. No one questions me; no one else counts; the young man behind the counter hands me a few dollars and then shouts out to the attendant at the pumps, who shouts back that I owe forty dollars. Transaction complete. “Have a nice day.”

At Dinelles, I walk through the automatic doors—installed sometime in the last ten years—and grab a cart. I got one of the ones that goes clunkety-clunk with every revolution of the wheels—that would be at least half of them. At the meat counter, I chat with the butcher for a moment—about the weather of course—even though I don’t want meat today. I do want something special from the bakery, so I ring the little doorbell and eventually a harried-looking woman appears. “Do you have frozen loaves of French bread I can bake myself?” She goes to check. “Sorry, not today.” I guess we’ll make do with pre-baked bread.

At the checkout, my bill comes to twenty-seven dollars. “On the account, please,” I say and give the last four digits of my phone number. Glenna doesn’t have to confirm who I am; she knows. She finds me on the computer—another addition in the last decade or so—and adds today’s purchases to my running tally.

Of course, the general store has changed a lot over forty years. It’s name changed in 1980, when Dinelles bought it from Buchanans. It gradually dropped most of the non-grocery items after a farm store and later a hardware store opened in the village. You can buy flavoured coffee by the cup now, and slushies in bright blue and bright red from machines that stir endlessly (though I never have). We can now buy whole-bean, fair trade coffee and a choice of yoghurts; the selection of produce, while still limited, is far greater than it used to be; there’s even quinoa one the shelf next to the split peas and the dry beans. There’s a liquor store addition, so you can pick up a bottle of wine before heading out to your car—which is still parked in a parking lot that overflows (rarely) at ten. And there are those automatic doors. But for all the changes, the place still has the feel of a country store—a place where they know your name.

Of course, I often shop in the supermarkets in town, where the selection and the prices are better, the produce is kept fresher with regular little showers, and the ice cream never has bits of frost stuck to the carton. But my quick trips to Echo Bay, where I can count my own empties and charge my groceries, help keep me anchored in this place.

From Shifting Currents.

In 1972, the business section of Echo Bay—population 500, a ten-minute drive from the farm—consisted of a gas station; a take-out pizza joint with a pin-ball machine; a small variety store specializing in cigarettes, bread, milk, and candy; a post office; the Country Place restaurant; and Buchanan’s General Store. Also “in the Bay”, were three churches—Anglican, United, Baptist—and an elementary school.

Two days after we moved in, I checked out Buchanan’s General Store. I parked in one of the dozen parking spaces in front and pulled open the heavy glass door. Immediately to my left, an overweight woman of about fifty, with tightly-curled grey hair, sat on a stool behind an old-fashioned cash register. I smiled hello at her, took a grocery cart, and headed down the first aisle. As far as I could tell, I was the only customer in the store.

I picked up a head of lettuce, a bag of onions, a bag of apples, and some carrots from the meager display of produce. Opposite the produce, several shelves held bread, hamburger buns, and cookies…a loaf of white bread was the best I could do. I pushed my cart up and down the five aisles, taking stock first of the canned goods and dry groceries, then cleaning supplies, school supplies, sewing notions, greeting cards, magazines, garden tools, work clothes, and miscellaneous hardware items. This side of the store smelled like nails and rubber boots. At the back of the store, I found a cooler with dairy products, and beside them, the meat counter.

I was trying to decide between hamburger and pork chops when a tall, heavy-set man in glasses and a white apron came out of a man-sized refrigerator door carrying half a pig. He looked over at me, dropped the pig on a butcher’s table, wiped his hands on his apron, and approached the counter. “Good afternoon,” he said. “You must be Mrs. Dunning—from the White farm, right? I’m Garfield Buchanan. Welcome to the neighbourhood.” It was the warmest welcome I’d received yet.

“Thanks,” I said. “How did you know who I was?”

He chuckled. “Word gets around, you’ll see. I hear you’re Americans.”

I sputtered. “Not really. Not anymore.”

He smiled—indulgently, I thought. “What can I get for you?”

I was walking toward the check-out with both a pound of hamburger and a package of pork chops—wrapped in brown paper with the price marked in grease pencil—when Garfield called out. “Eva! This is Mrs. Dunning from Fred White’s farm. Open an account for her!”

Really? I hadn’t asked for that.

Eva Buchanan didn’t have her brother’s charm, but she was efficiency itself. “I’ll just mark it down,” she said as she totalled up the items on the clattering cash register.

“I can pay,” I insisted.

She shook her head. “This’ll get your account started. Then, you can pay up every month.” She pulled a big, flat book off the shelf beside her and opened it to a page with D written on the top and rows of little pockets neatly labeled Dean…Downy…Doughty. She tucked my bill into an empty pocket, labeled it Dunning, and closed the book. I was in.

“Al-ex!” She called, her voice rising on the second syllable. The third Buchanan appeared, a taller, lankier, and somewhat younger man. “You want to carry these bags out for Mrs. Dunning? She’s on the Fred White farm.”

“Yes, b-be glad to, M-mrs. Dunning. Welcome to Echo Bay.”

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