The decline of small-town grocers

Jim Suber: View from Rural Route 8

By A Contributor

It seems the lament for small town grocery stores must continue until the last one of them is shuttered. Unless they can “morph” into hybrid convenience stores, their demise seems almost inevitable to me. A few are surviving under creative ownerships and stubbornness.

The causes are many, not the least of which is impatient mobility on the part of Americans everywhere. That plays into empty shelves, where selection has been reduced because there is no revenue with which to restock. It’s a downward spiral (I write this from firsthand knowledge and experience) because if there is nothing much to sell, nobody wants to come inside and buy, which of course means if the store becomes empty of customers and goods, it might as well unplug and padlock.

Customer loyalty is also an issue. If customers wish to drive 30 miles round trip and burn $7 worth of gas to save $2 on a sack of groceries while also enjoying getting out of sight from their small town surroundings and seeing variety, volumes and freshness not available at home, then, well, that’s exactly what happens a lot whenever a sleek or large supermarket opens within striking distance of a small town with an old, small grocery.

Actually, this losing of small groceries has been going on hand-in-hand with the loss of small farms and the urbanization of America for, oh, probably since at least the end of World War II, which was in 1945. Better roads to town in better vehicles also count.

But hey, you don’t have to buy into this column about it. Why not? It’s because the intelligentsia has been studying small town groceries and will have a “summit” about them in Manhattan next month. Manhattan, incidentally, has big time grocery warehouse stores and super-duper grocery markets, as well as open air vegetable and fruit markets. A lot of people drive into places like Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, Salina, Emporia and even Wamego, St. Marys and Rossville to buy groceries and gasoline.

I might add, also from experience, that small town, independent drug stores have all but disappeared, but for more complex and not so obvious reasons than have felled grocery stores. And when those two anchors on small town main street go, so too often going away are the newspaper, tax base and schools.

It is tempting to go a few feet down memory lane, so I will. In my boyhood of central Georgia in the 1950s, there was little money and there were more families white and black living in the country. Here and there, every few miles, were what we called “country” stores. They usually had a gas pump outside under a wooden canopy, a double screen door with a bread company’s logo attached. Inside there a few shelves with canned goods; cubbyholes for the cigarettes, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco; a counter top with a big cheese round, several drink chest coolers filled with Coca Cola, Pepsi, RC, Dr. Pepper, a selection of orange drinks (not juice) and others; a tiny freezer box held ice cream and popsickles in various flavors and sizes. In those days there were local or regional dairies, most of which took great pride in the quality of their products. Milk, though, was often an “iffy” buy, because most folks milked their own, usually an old Jersey fed weeds and low ball grasses. The cans included potted meats, stews and sardines. Crackers and cookies were often stale. The bread was usually okay. The flour was almost always self-rising and the corn meals were yellow and white, often finely ground for fish coating and hush puppies. The fresh meats weren’t very fresh, and often the cuts and parts were the lesser ones we poor people were more apt to buy and eat. In town, population around 3,000 by 1956, were several small grocery stores with wooden floors, short selections, and variations of owners, workers, food quality, etc. They are also gone with the wind, replaced first by sizeable supermarkets with carts, then later by super stores as we know them today.

This column was approved by me for anyone to take to the summit. Short of mandating that people stay home and shop in a given store, I have nothing to offer at this time that will save groceries from their own low sales and customer volumes, modern competition, our culture, our times, our expectations, our freedom to choose.

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