Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Country Store

Those of you living in larger cities or are too young may not remember the old country stores. The country store was a descendant of the general stores which could once be found across the United States. "General stores" got their name because they carried a little bit of everything. They not only carried groceries, but often other items such as dry goods, toys, and so on. Usually the stores were not very big, with as much merchandise crammed into as little space as possible.

The general store began its decline during World War I and into the Twenties. It is at this time that such grocery chains as Safeway arose, not to mention the various specialty stores and other chains. The general store took more blows with the rise of such discount houses as WalMart and K-Mart in the Sixties. By the mid-Twentieth century, most general stores only remained in rural areas. By the late Twentieth century, even these country stores became few and far between.

Because of this, my experience with country stores is somewhat limited. I remember as a young child, when the bridge on Highway C would flood (thus blocking easy access to Huntsville or Moberly), we would go to a country store. Sadly, I can't remember if the store was in Darksville, Thomas Hill, or College Mound, although I do remember it was north of our farm on Highway C. I do remember it was literally crowded with merchandise. Along its narrow aisles one could find everything from breakfast food to batteries.

As I got older I had the opportunity to experience more country stores. The one I frequented the most was Heuer's, which is on Old Highway 63 north of Harrisburg. In the Eighties, on our trips to Columbia, we would often stop at Heuer's to buy soda, get something to eat, and use the restroom. I do believe at that time it was still known as the Pinnacle Hill Store. At any rate, since it became Heuer's, the store has not changed terribly much. It still has its cafe where they serve sandwiches and coffee. It still carries a large array of goods. And there is still the Liar's Table (basically an old electric spool), so called because of the tall tales told there ("...the fish was this big..."). In the Liar's Table are carved the names of past patrons. At any rate, Heuer's as a wonderful atmosphere: simple, rural furnishings and simply crowded with goods.

Heuer's isn't the only country store remaining in Missouri. There is also Crane's Country Store in Mineola. I have never been to the store, but I have heard a lot about it. It was founded in 1898 along the Boone's Lick Trail. It is also one of the few stores that has remained in the same family for the entirety of its existence. Founded as the Harrison and Crane Store, it became B. R. Crane and Sons not long after and has remained with the Cranes ever since. Like Heuer's they serve food (they are well known for their $1.00 sandwiches). And like Heuer's they carry a wide variety of goods, everything from milk to boots.

Henson's General Store is another country store still operating in Missouri. Like Crane's, I have never been to Henson's, although I have heard a good deal abou tit. Founded in 1940, it is much younger than either Heuer's or Crane's. It is tucked away east of Ava in the township of Champion. And like all general stores, it sells a bit of everything.

Hard as it is to believe, not all the remaining country stores are in the country. Once a very small town, Little Elm, TX (where my brother lives) now has a population of 12,003. Despite this, most of the locals still do much of their shopping at the Lakeview. The Lakeview is primarily a grocery, although one can also buy gas and bait for fishing. I've been to the Lakeview many times and I must say that I have always enjoyed my trips there. It is much more pleasant than the big grocery store (whose name I can't recall) or even Dollar General.

As I said above, there are only a few country stores remaining throughout the United States. That having been said, I am not sure that the concept of the general store is entirely dead. The convenience store can be seen as a variation on the idea of the general store, although it seems to me that convenience stores carry much less in the way of goods. Similarly, such hypermarkets as the Wal-Mart Supercentres and SuperTargets can be seen as the general store taken to its logical extreme. Such hypermarkets carry both groceries and the variety of goods one expects from discount houses such as Wal-Mart and KMart. I must state, however, that I don't really consider the hypermarkets to be general stores any more than I do convenience stores. They lack the homey atmosphere and laid back feel of the old time country stores.

I seriously doubt that country stores will ever cover the United States as they once did. For better or worse, the chain stores, discount houses, and hypermarkets drove them out of business. I rather expect that they will keep them out of business. One can only hope that the few country stores remaining will continue to stay in business.

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