Romancing the Store

Keeping "ye olde" traditions alive

illustration by brad fitzpatrick

Ye Olde Country Store was a fixture in small towns from the1800s to the mid-1900s, before people started driving to East Chemung and back (on the same day!) and before biggie box stores sprouted and sprawled like fungi. (Fun fact: The world’s largest living organism is a fungus in Oregon.) They weren’t called Ye Olde back then, just the Store (pronounced sto-ah). You walked to the Store — up-street, down-street or cross-street, depending on your location — for necessaries. The Store, packed floor to ceiling, had it all: from soap to nuts, chicken feed to monkey wrenches, apples to zippers. Motto: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.

When I was a kid, Grammie in Danbury would send me down-street to Hod Hastings Store to buy a newspaper, Wonder Bread or, on a good day, a Fudgsicle. On Fudgsicle days, I’d sit with Grampa on an upturned wooden box near the counter. He and Uncle L.E. and a couple of other geezers in overalls set there most days. Geezers telling olde stories, you might be thinking — wry and dry, eat your heart out, Norman Rockwell. 

Nope. They set, smoked, chewed, spit. As frugal with words as pennies.

Most true general stores are as long gone as my beloved geezers and my childhood. But a few survive, reminding us of when clerks fetched goods from your list, when packages were wrapped with paper and tied with string, when customers ran tabs and paid what they could when they could. Today’s country store, where credit cards replace handwritten tabs, doesn’t stock the variety it used to. It carries plastic moose that poop jellybeans and tiny leaf-shaped gift bottles of maple syrup alongside staples like doughnuts, cold cuts and beer.

At Calef’s Country Store in Barrington, Joel Sherburne has been cutting the famous Snappy Old Cheese for going on 60 years. Coming through the door is like going back in time. “We’ll take you back to the sixties — the 1860s,” he says. “They can’t believe it. They smile all over their faces.” Some make a beeline for the penny candy that mostly costs a nickel. Dried beans are another popular item. “Saturday night. We gotta have our beans.” As for pickles in a barrel, Joel says, “Dill is great, but sour gives you puckah powah.”

Spotting the jar on the counter, an innocent asks, “What is a pickled lime?”

“It’s a lime,” Joel says. “Pickled.”

“How sharp is that cheese?”

“Sharp enough to make you sit up and take notice.”

Sharp enough so if you’ve got a long drive on a hot day, you best wrap it tight and put it in the trunk or you might be overcome by the fumes. The secret aging process goes back 100 years to the heyday of Ye Olde Country Store. Joel knows the secret, but he won’t crack. “My lips are sealed,” he says, “just like Elmer’s glue.” 

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