June 24, 2011

State Street--That Great Street

This Raven Lunatic column ran in various Indiana newspapers during the last week.

Shopping at the Five and Dime

Local businesses are at the heart of any small community. Growing up in the 1960s in a small Indiana town, almost every business along my town’s State Street was owned by someone my family personally knew. 

My parents drilled into my head that we supported these locally-owned businesses, even if gasoline was a few pennies higher per gallon or it meant choosing a new washer from a catalog at the hardware store. 

For items not available in our town, we drove to the county seat or the city in the next county. Most of my childhood commerce, however, happened in the short strip of stores along State Street.

We patronized service stations in our town. My brother and I loved going to “get gas” with our father, because that meant getting a treat.  Unlike today when the common drink at a convenience store or drive up is at least 20 ounces, our treat was a 6 ounce bottle of Coke or 7Up.  The service stations had metal chest freezers with a large brand logo on the front.  Varieties of ice cold sodas hung on metal racks inside the chest.  Once you dropped a dime into the coin slot, you pulled your choice along the rack until it was free.  No drink is as cold as a Coca-Cola from a chest freezer on a hot summer day.

A trip to “Tom and Blackie’s” station also meant listening to conversations about the Cubs and crops. Before each summer vacation my father bought us plastic sunglasses from the gas station.  Apparently a trip to the Indiana Dunes required me as an eight-year-old to look like Carol Channing stepping out of a cab on Broadway.

My town had a bakery that was adjacent to our only grocery store.  Nothing so far in life has replicated the taste of their cakes, cookies, or doughnuts.  We all hold memories in our hearts about special food items from our childhood.  That being said I’m certain that almost everyone who grew up in my town would say the same thing about Gruwell’s Bakery.  The bakery had two entrances, one on the street, and one through the back of the town’s only grocery store.  In high school, my newspaper friends and I got passes ostensibly to visit the town’s newspaper office or library. Of course we were off to the bakery for long johns or chocolate-covered doughnuts (and usually took one back for our school principal, who looked the other way.)

My favorite store in town was Baxter’s Dime Store.  The store held many tempting treasures for young children, including glass bins at the front of the store with penny candy.  For a few cents, Mrs. Edith Baxter filled a waxy, white paper bag with all kinds of riches, chocolate covered peanuts, Turkish taffy, red hots, or brown-and-white nonpareils.  For the uninitiated nonpareils are tiny balls of sugar and starch that came in chocolate and other flavors, looking a little like today’s Dippin’ Dots.

But the store wasn’t limited to candy.  The store was long with two aisles that ran back.  Bolts of colorful cotton fabric stood on one side, with patterns available for sewing.  The store hearkened back to an even early age when stores like that were called “Dry Goods.”  We always purchased our school supplies from the dime store, and it was a big day indeed to choose new pencils and folders in primary colors.

While my town has many local businesses that provide excellent service, they co-exist with the Big Box stores.  Within eight miles of my home, I can shop at three outlets for the world’s largest retailer.  Frankly I think that is overkill, but I’m not the marketing analyst who determines these things.  Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I like to go into a business where like the theme of Cheers says “Everybody knows your name.”

UPDATE:  Apparently my memory isn't that great. I've heard from several readers that my hometown had up to FOUR grocery stores.  I do remember a meat market, but I wasn't sure that it carried groceries as well.  And there were two others, Matson's and a Kroger, that I've either forgotten or wasn't aware of.  No harm intended.

© by the author 2011