“If we don't have it, you don't need it!”
General stores, the iconic “everything” stores, are run by moms and pops and generations of families throughout the USA and the world. We've spotted them in Australia and New Zealand and in little towns in South America and South Africa. They're nothing like their modern counterparts of 7-11 or Quick-Stop. Instead of a sterile, “buy what you want and get out” atmosphere manned by a minimum wage employee, good old general stores are warm and friendly. Sometimes the meeting place for small town residents, the pot bellied stove blazes in the winter and the coffee is always hot. Old men gather to share news and trade gossip or play a game of checkers. We're happy to browse around the shelves and determine what it is that we don't need.
The motto above actually belongs to Dan & Whit's General Store in Norwich, Vermont. I visited Dan & Whit's as a kid. Dan & Whit's has been around since 1955, but the actual store dates back to 1891 and is considered a local landmark as are many general stores, not only in the US, but around the world.
As we've traveled, we've made it a point to stop at rural general stores whenever we could. Times have changed. Most offer deli sandwiches and beer to go, along with grain, nails, seeds, and bait. Some things remain the same though. There's usually a burgeoning community bulletin board for locals to pin up their cards offering services. Sometimes someone has some animals for sale or there's an ad for an upcoming bean supper. It's small town, any town and we enjoy it.
We especially like the stores that offer all the stuff that local people want and need, but have maintained their old-time appeal … the old wooden shelving and display cases, pickle barrels, penny candy (that invariably costs 10-25¢ now) and big wedges of cheese waiting to be cut. Frequently purchased items are near the front and easily found. Other items from some other era, lay stuck behind other merchandise on back shelves or are hung from the ceiling, covered with dust, just waiting for someone to need them. Inventory turn is not quite as critical here.
Real general stores reflect the needs of the local community. We visited the general store in Aladdin, Wyoming, population 15. This store supplies gear, feed and ranching equipment to the local cowboys and outlying ranchers. It offers all the other items you'd expect like basic drygoods, but cowboy hats and durable jeans are also on offer. The local post office operates from the store as well. Good old stores like this find it hard to compete with the WalMarts and K-Marts of the world. Luckily, the mega-stores don't have much interest in setting up business in areas like Aladdin, so perhaps this general store is safe.
Another particularly interesting store was Raines Market in Eureka, Nevada. Catering to an old mining town, this store still offers mining equipment along with other staples.It sports lots of hunting trophies on its walls along with the ammunition to make trophies from the local elk, deer and mountain goat population.
Wall Drug in South Dakota started out as a general store and drug store. Their big draw in the early days was offering “Free Ice Water” to folks who traveled along the dusty road past Wall, South Dakota. Today it's a sprawling complex of gimmicks and souvenirs and though it's fun to stop, it's more like an amusement park than a good old country store.
In New Zealand, we visited the Old Stone Store in Kerikeri. It's the oldest European building in New Zealand, but was a mission supply warehouse and never really a store. Now it's a gift shop with memorabilia and unique gifts. Worth a visit, but not a general store by any stretch of the imagination. We've yet to explore the Outback in Australia, but when we do, you can be sure we'll stop at the little general stores along the way.
We visited a local place the other day simply named “The Country Store”, touted to be a general store from days gone by. We browsed through room after room of stuff that was old-looking, but not old. It was a cutesy gift shop rather than a general store and we were disappointed. They did, however, have a pickle barrel and quite honestly, that saved the day!