It was a Saturday like every other, and we were on our way to town. The warm breath of summer rushed in the cab of our ’48 Chevy pickup and ruffled my slicked back hair. Mother was wearing her going-to-town clothes, a blue-flowered cotton dress with a sparkling white collar. Her lace-up shoes gleamed.
Father pulled up in front of Campbell’s Store and set the brake.
“Mind, now, no running in the store, William,” Mother prompted.
“Father will be at Purdy’s Hardware.”
Her words were like an old jacket, well-fitting and reliable, predictable. She straightened my collar and dabbed at my face with her handkerchief.
“Ma,” I whined.
She pecked at my cheek. She kissed Father’s cheek, too, and I smirked.
“Get on with you,” he muttered, sheepish, but pleased.
I was already thudding across the boardwalk into the dim interior of Campbell’s, the bell over the door jangling.
The aroma that defined Campbell’s engulfed me. Wood and polish, apples and coffee, tobacco and Sunlight soap. Mother got one of only two carts in the store, a contrary contraption with uncooperative wheels, made worse by the uneven, wooden floor. She consulted her list.
I was free to explore.
As always, I was fascinated by the bottles of milk lined up in pristine perfection in the cooler. Milk in glass bottles! Amazing.
Wooden boxes were heaped with fruit and vegetables: oranges, potatoes, onions, carrots, some flecked with fine soil. There were no avocados or asparagus, and seldom bananas. I’d never seen a real pineapple.
In the back corner of the store, shelves reached to the ceiling, stacked with a profusion of items: hand-painted teapots, porcelain horses, cards of hairpins, men’s hankies, baby bonnets, scented talc. Mr. Campbell like to have such things on hand, so folks didn’t have to make a trip to the city. There were toys, too. Rubber balls, skip ropes, baby dolls, and checkerboards. I had been longingly admiring a die-cast tractor, perfect in every detail, even a steering wheel that turned. For Christmas, I wished.
My tour ended at the penny candy counter, and twinges twisted my belly. Licorice babies or caramels? Jelly beans or jawbreakers? Toffee or jujubes?
On this particular Saturday, though, I was overtaken, enticed by the bright rainbow of candy, the intoxicating fragrances, and the assurance that Mother was absorbed with choosing bleach. I quietly moved a stool and clambered up. As I reached for a red cinnamon fish, I glanced around one more time.
Mr. Campbell stood behind me.
He shook his head slowly, his eyes sad, but he said not a word; I pulled back my hand, as though bitten. My face flaming, and never looking away from Mr. Campbell’s sorrowful face, I climbed down and pushed the stool into the alcove behind the big brass cash register.
That's the way it was with Mr. Campbell and his store.
The store was the hearth of the community, the place where births and deaths were announced, as well as courtships, crop failures, and twin calves. Men discussed rainfall and horsepower, and women shared knitting patterns and rejoiced over new gelatin flavours.
Mr. Campbell always saved a tender chop for old Mrs. Atkinson, who walked “to market” every day but Sunday, and he kept aside bones for the Pearsalls’ dog. He sliced cheese and chicken loaf himself, always tucking an extra piece inside the brown paper for the “growing lad.”
And a small boy with an unruly sweet tooth might be gently chastised by a kind and bewhiskered man, a man to whom the character of a child was as high a priority as providing fresh bread and canned peaches to his customers.
Mr. Campbell died in 1976, but the residents of the small prairie town had already started trekking to rambling, crowded malls in the city, and it was only a matter of time before Campbell’s Store, neglected and forlorn, was demolished and replaced by a sparkling building where a disembodied voice would take orders, and plastic-wrapped food would be pushed through a window.
Nowadays, amidst strangers, I propel a shiny grocery cart around a bustling supermarket. Brightly packaged foods from around the world vie for my attention, and bold signs scream of bigger, better bargains. A girl with a ring in her lip sullenly scans my groceries.
“Is that everything?” she lisps.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, but it’s not everything.
Not at all.
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