When “the little store” closed a couple of years ago our country “one-stop-sign-town” changed forever.
Ila had been the proprietor for as long as I could remember - and long before. She was a squat, stout little lady with a round face framed by soft curls of silver hair. Behind wire-rimmed glasses her blue eyes sparkled whenever the rusty spring on the rickety screen door announced a patron.
“Hi Ila, do you have brown eggs today?”
“Sure do – how many do you need?”
“Well, could you spare two dozen?”
“Here you go – anything else?”
“No, but you’d better let me pay up while I’m here.”
With that Ila flipped through a small spiral notepad near the cash register until she came to our family’s page where she kept our “account.”
“Let’s see,” she said as she added the column of hand-written numbers. “That will be $9.42 in all. You know your kids were up here for candy last week, but they only got $.13 worth.”
Ila grinned and we both glanced toward the penny candy counter full of plastic tubs brimming with individually wrapped gum, caramels, and hard candies. The thick glass top of the candy counter appeared dull and gray – having been scraped by probably thousands, if not millions, of pennies.
“Well good – glad to know they didn’t buy out the store!”
I grabbed my sack with its farm-fresh eggs and turned to leave.
“Hey Ila, don’t ever close this store, okay? We’d all be lost without you.”
She smiled the sweet smile of one who’d practiced being the community’s mother figure for decades.
Later that week I returned for a few things I needed to make a quick batch of cookies. The screen door banged with characteristic personality as I entered. Hand-written papers tacked on the wall rustled briefly to remind me to contact would-be babysitters and look for lost dogs. Ila’s voice called from the back of the store: “Can I help you?”
“Hi Ila, I’m just here to pick up some chocolate chips and flour.” I answered.
The bald, well-worn path on the wooden floor led me past an antique chest-style soda cooler with its rows of glass bottles submerged in icy water - past the humming cooler with its milk, butter, cheese, and two or three heads of lettuce - and past the infamous penny candy counter. I grabbed my bag of chips and a 5-lb. sack of flour.
“Oh, I should pick up some soup while I’m here – almost forgot – but I don’t think I have enough money…”
“No problem, I’ll just start a new account,” Ila said.
“Thanks a bunch!”
I paraded past the counter full of bread and buns, the upright freezer full of concentrated orange juice and bacon, and scooted through a narrow spot to reach some shelves tucked behind the ice cream freezer.
Aluminum cans flanked the walls like ranks of soldiers standing at attention – perhaps two or three deep. Each one displayed a dollar amount written with a black felt-tipped pen. Scanners obviously didn’t belong here.
I walked up to the simple counter and the old-fashioned wrought-iron cash register – the kind with tabs that popped up in a window on top. Ila punched the keys hard – up came the white tabs and - pop! - the money drawer sprang open. I gave her what cash I had and she scribbled the remainder of my indebtedness on her pad.
“See you soon Ila. Thanks!”
Only a few weeks later I learned the little store was closing. A new superstore was now only fifteen minutes away; busy lifestyles took people into the neighboring “big town” almost daily. There was no longer enough business in our farming community for the little store to survive.
These days as I drive past the curtained windows and “closed” sign I remember what it was like – not so long ago – to step into this comfortable place where Ila served the community so cheerfully. I fondly recall what was a remnant of a lifestyle now almost forgotten, a simpler lifestyle when penny candy was the most exciting thing in town.
Beth, Your story reminded me of an old store I used to visit as a child when I was at my grandparents. It is this hard to describe sorrow when it goes - ecomonics are obvious, by the hear is sad. The story was like bittersweet chocolate to me (which I love) - it had the touches of sweet simplicity and joy and the pain and sorrow of real life endings.
Thanks for sharing.