First published in Franklin Journal
“Let’s meet at Carsley’s in 25 years” Barb, my longtime, school friend, penned in my yearbook. Our still enduring friendship started when her family moved to New Vineyard, Maine. We both came from family’s who were “from away”, a commonality which bonded us quickly. I lived by the lake and she lived on the mountain, but we both enjoyed the high adventure of living in a rural community which included watching loon’s antics on Porter Lake during sleepovers in the summer; ice skating in the winter; biking here and there; library visits and hanging out at her family’s house to play games, talk, eat and host the occasional art show.
Once in a while, Barb and I would run across each other at the little town general store on Main Street. It was owned by Cecil Carsley, who was also the barber and once Board of Health, secretary. A small town icon, the corner store was down from the Smith Town Hall, which also housed the library and stood as protector of the War Memorial. It was center court for sharing the latest word on community happenings, local and state politics and a convenient place to pick up snacks, beverages or favorite mode of tobacco imbibing. I remember the colorful rows of cigarette packages behind the counter, as though standing sentry behind the cashier. On the counter and underneath, there was every penny candy imaginable, including candy cigarettes housed in identical packaging to the tobacco version. Other shelving supported foods and miscellaneous items. And Cecil had a phone at a time when most homes in this tiny rural community didn’t. I would usually stay outside on the rickety porch with uneven floor boards, or visit the stream behind the store, while my mom chatted inside about Marjorie Howard’s tantalizing baked goods, current events or the upcoming town meeting, for which mom would promise to supply her Boston baked beans.
You could find a small variety of canned goods, occasionally fabric to sew a new frock, and most often dry goods. I think the most important commodity was the opportunity to catch up on the news of the town. Often times the subject matter of town meetings was all talked out before the meeting even happened. If it wasn’t, then for sure people were fired up for a heated discussion on the given meeting day. Not unlike the lyrics to “Cheers” theme song, “everybody knows your name”. You might think it was all gossip, but there is a certain comfort in knowing your neighbor by name, instead of just by their address. I think we were more likely to help each other out when we knew we’d be running into each other. Case in point, even though my family was “from away” and never lost the title of “summer people” even though we had a permanent home there, the families of the town came to our immediate aid when my father suddenly died and left my mother with a home and little girl to take care. No one asked what was needed, they just “did” and expected nothing in return. The “return” piece had been taken care of daily.
Carsley’s “mom and pop” store is now a distant memory. As the building slowly deteriorated, people speculated when the owner might close shop all together. Eventually, the store did close and more eventually, the building was torn down, depriving my friend and me of our promised meeting spot. With new owners, it was replaced further north with “Our Village Market”. Long ago stage coaches brought visitors. Now hikers, bikers, snowmobilers, loggers and of course, the steady stream of cars and trucks find their way up route 27. Upon entering, and often times before you enter, your senses are assailed by the mix of stale, as well as the irresistible aroma of freshly baked pizzas, French fries, and hot or cold sandwiches. If the visitor is lucky enough, there may be freshly made desserts. New generations are talking politics and weather conditions, while browsing and buying the requisite offerings of sundries, food and assorted beverages. Some nights the store hosts musical entertainment.
(Photo credit: Our Village Market)
Christopher Caldwell said “retail is the exciting place where economic order and social order meet”. I think that embodies the enduring success of mom and pop stores. They are heart and hallmark of American culture. Even Seinfeld thought them important enough for an entire episode. Who remembers “Mom and Pop Store”? Kramer says “I went by the store on my way home and the place was empty… Mom and pop vanished! I’ve been asking around. They didn’t even have any kids.” Jerry responds with “Mom and Pop aren’t even a mom and pop?” “It was all an act, Jerry. They conned us (for 48 years), and they scored big-time!”
The term “Mom and Pop” was coined, because typically a husband and wife runs the store. They are often the community, surrogate mom and pop. It’s likely they have offspring and other relatives who take a turn working in the store or making store products. They often shape the course of the community. These stores can be anything from a small convenience store selling foods on a country road, to a small florist or butcher shop in the city. Always, we have the opportunity to chat with the locals and catch up on the news; snag a newspaper; inquire about travel directions; or imbibe in some freshly brewed coffee to go with freshly baked goods made on the premises or delivered. The store serves as a gathering place to bring people together and foster the foundation of a community. They help people feel connected whether they are stand-alone stores on a country street, or nestled in the mix of a busy metropolis.