A general store education

Thinking back many years ago now, I spent a couple of summers and weekends working in Elmer’s grocery in North Bloomfield.

Elmer came to my father one day and asked him if it was OK to offer me a job. With three other sons to help with his work, Dad agreed I could work for Elmer. So he offered me the job.

Elmer’s store was a typical general store back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. He not only sold groceries, but also boots, shoes, kerosene and a few patent medicines. Lots of penny candies were found in a covered counter.

My first job in the morning was to take a water bottle with a sprinkler top and sprinkle water down the central aisle in the store. This was to keep the dust down when I came along with a bristle broom to sweep the floor.

Toward the rear of the store was an old-fashioned potbellied stove. Around the stove were three or four chairs that were “seats of honor” for the town “sages” to gather to solve the problems of the world.

As I learned to serve the customers and do other work, I would listen to the conversations of the group. Usually there was J.C., Tom, Will, Roy and sometimes others. As you can guess, discussions ranged from local community affairs to those in the county, nation and world.

My memory doesn’t recall most of their discussions, but a few stand out. Local topics got the most attention, with raccoon hunting one of the favorites. Coon hunting was done at night, and most hunters had dogs to track and tree the coon. Who had the best dogs to track and tree coon was a hot topic.

Then who got the most or biggest coon was cause for debate by the group. Once in awhile a customer who happened to come in entered into the debate and had gotten the biggest coon. I often thought that a bit of exaggeration was a part of the conversation.

Hiring someone to help around the farm came up often. They seemed to know who were good workers and who were not. One of the old sayings that they often used, and I have heard it many times since, was “if they be boys, one boy is a boy, two boys are half a boy, and three boys are no boy at all.”

A couple in the group were township trustees and had to deal with local problems. One of the comments I often heard was “too many cooks spoil the broth.” They were reacting to the advice they got from local residents with their ideas.

Talk in Elmer’s store, and other country stores around the area, was known to be exaggerated, amusing, colorful – and rich in its reflection of human nature. There are still gatherings of men and women around tables and at local restaurants that discuss local and worldwide problems.

Working at this store taught me many things about human nature. Customers of all kinds came in, some pleasant and enjoyable, easy to serve. A few unhappy, difficult to satisfy. I learned to treat them all pleasantly and with courtesy, at times this was not easy.

Elmer bought his beef by the half and hung it in his walk-in cooler to cut up as customers ordered. If someone wanted a five pound roast, we would bring out a quarter of beef to cut off the roast. I had to learn where various roasts came from in the quarter and how big was five pounds. Not always easy to cut just what the customers wanted.

At first, I would take the meat saw and energetically start sawing with short strokes. Elmer would stop me and say “John, there are teeth the full length of the saw.” Good advice even today.

Parker is an independent writer for the Tribune Chronicle.