Last week when I stopped into my small-town grocery store for a bag of onions and some dish soap, I stopped short. The familiar aisles were gone, the shelves in disarray, many empty.
“What’s up?” I asked Glenna, the woman who’s been punching in my four-digit code and handing me a charge slip to sign for the last umpteen years. “Rearranging?”
“They’re downsizing,” she said. “No more fresh meat, no more bakery, no more produce.”
No. It can’t be.
“They’re building a wall to make it smaller. It’ll be a convenience store.” Walls. The world is full of walls and threats of walls.
She pointed to a sign by the cash register. All running accounts must be closed off by October 8.
“What do I owe?” I asked, still in shock, putting my onions and soap on the rubber counter that never moved like the counters in supermarkets. “I’ll just pay up now I guess. Two-three-two-one.” Those are the last four digits of my phone number. An easy code to crack, but no one ever has. When my name comes up on the screen in front of her, she doesn’t have to confirm it. She knows who I am.
I’ve been shopping at the grocery store in Echo Bay since we moved here forty-four years ago, when it was still Buchanans General Store, owned by three siblings who had taken it over from their parents somewhere in the second quarter of the last century. It’s on the tip of my tongue to say I haven’t appreciated it really, until now, but that’s not actually true. I’ve enjoyed chatting and laughing with Glenna at the check-out. I’ve been grateful for the owner and fine butcher, Loggy, for rescuing a dinner party by cheerfully re-rolling a holiday pork roast after I’d unrolled it, “stuffed” it with dried fruit, and ended up with a floppy pocket of prunes and apricots.
I thought I’d miss his parents, Pat and Maxine, when they sold it to him, but they didn’t really leave. They hung around, helping out behind the meat counter or stocking the produce, because they just couldn’t turn their backs on the work and the customers they loved. I don’t think that happens at Metro or IGA. And while I sometimes run into people I know in the supermarkets, the Metro doesn’t feel intimate. Dinelles does. In fact, when Jack and I were considering selling the farm and moving to town a few years ago, one of the things I realized I’d miss the most was Dinelles.
Need a fruit tray in a hurry? Call Dinelles. Want your Christmas turkey fresh, not frozen? Order ahead and Loggy’ll hold it in the cooler until Christmas eve, save your fridge space. Putting on a community event? Dinelle’s will make sure you have what you need, when you need it. At a good price, and with a smile. It feels like home.
But it’s not where I’ve done my major food shopping, and I suppose that makes me, along with most of the community, part of the problem. Our little town is only half an hour from Sault Ste. Marie and the major food chains. Dinelle’s has been an in-between place to shop, where you can count on finding what you’ve run out of to put off going to town for another few days. Where you can run in and out with a few items, without even opening your wallet.
“On the account, please.” A token of community membership. A few years ago, some out-of-towners in the line overheard me and said “You can charge things here?”
“She can,” said Glenna, pointing at me and laughing. Yes, membership has its privileges.
But it’s not a public service. Small grocery stores are in trouble. I suppose we’re lucky to have had one this long. When a new four-lane highway bypassed the few businesses in Echo Bay a few years ago, rumours flew that Dinelles, and perhaps the gas station, would close. When that didn’t happen, we breathed a sigh of relief and forgot about the threat. For those locals who are interested in the details, see http://www.saultstar.com/2016/10/13/landmark-echo-bay-store-faces-downsizing
I’ve just returned from checking it out. It’s all true. Glenna was still there at the cash register. Loggy was putting up the wall. Where the wall’s not up yet, I could see remnants of the store as I’ll always remember it, the big red signs now signifying nothing.
The new, tiny store occupying the front quarter of the building does include a wall of coolers with some lettuce, apples, a turnip, and a freezer with packaged meat. You can buy a tiny bag of flour or a tiny bag of sugar. Where the carts once lined up, there’s a shelf of items drastically reduced: the things that will no longer be sold, I assume. Large-size cans of tomatoes; specialty cereals; barley; split peas; some whole grain crackers. No sign of the carts, which probably wouldn’t fit in the new tiny aisles anyway.
It’s still Echo Bay though. I did run into a friend I haven’t seen for ages. We stood in the way of the only other shopper, bemoaned the loss of our grocery store, and caught up a bit. Then I picked up some ice cream and a loaf of bread. Paid cash.
Two-three-two-one. It’s just a phone number now.
From Shifting Currents, here’s my memory of the first time I shopped in Buchanan’s General Store, 1972.
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, some carrots and potatoes from the meager display of produce. Opposite the produce, several shelves held bread, hamburger buns, and cookies…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 pork chops and hamburger, 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 totaled 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.”
“Y-y-yes, b-be glad to, Mrs. Dunning. Welcome to Echo Bay.”