Small Stores Hold Treasure That Money Can't Buy

Recently my small Maine town achieved a victory. Faced with the prospect of a pharmacy chain tearing down a historical building on the main street to put in a so-called "megastore," we neighbors confronted the developers at a town meeting and persuaded them to abandon the project.

I think that all of us were unprepared for triumph. After all, the chain was promising much: a drive-through, long hours, and a mind-boggling variety of goods. In an age when surfaces are seductive and individuals feel powerless in the face of industrial wealth, the impassioned voices of locals arguing for the conservation of their small-town atmosphere and the existing corner pharmacy carried a note of poignancy as well as urgency.

We knew what we were fighting against; but what were we fighting for? The image that most compels me concerns one of my first experiences when I arrived here 15 years ago.

Fresh out of the Navy, I was coming to Maine on my motorcycle (ah yes, I had a motorcycle once....). After crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge from New Hampshire, I connected with a rural inland road. I soon needed to gas up, so I pulled into a small, isolated general store. But it was closed. There was a hand-lettered sign on one of the two gas pumps, however: OWNERS AWAY. PUMP GAS AND PUT MONEY IN CAN.

Put money in can? What can? And there, on the other side of the pump, was a coffee can half-filled with bills. Having been born and raised in New Jersey, I thought this was some kind of joke. But pump I did, and pay I did - happily so. As I drove away I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to leap out of the woods, grab the cash, and run off.

But it never happened.

In time I learned that in Maine such things are not unusual. The town I settled in also had a store that was one of the wonders of the mercantile world. It was called a pharmacy, but that was the least of its offerings. Toys, food, greeting cards, fishing tackle, hunting licenses, bug dope.... I even remember walking down an aisle one day and accidentally knocking a pair of snowshoes from the shelf. And overhead, suspended by wires, was a fully inflated rubber boat. The paper streamers taped to its stern were blown by an electric fan to indicate sleekness. I would use any excuse to enter the store, if only to behold it all. And if I did buy something and was lacking a few pennies, the owner would wave me off and tell me not to worry about it.

The thing is, one goes into small, family-owned stores for more than a purchase. Whether it's the hardware store that still sharpens saws on the premises, the grocery that you can actually walk to, or the general store where they hold a copy of the morning paper for you, the goal is not simply to get there, but to contrive a reason for staying. In small stores people move more slowly, and they listen to the conversations of others. Not long ago I was in a local cafe and stood patiently behind an older man who was buying two bottles of spring water. The young woman at the cash register asked him if he wanted them in separate bags. "Oh no," he protested with a note of shock. "If I do that, how will I hear the bottles chime?"

THAT moved me more deeply than the most heartfelt speech of any politico. When, I asked myself, was I ever in a large supermarket where the chiming of its bottles was an issue?

Recently, the city of Bangor tore down a perfectly functional neighborhood to make room for a state-of-the-art giant supermarket that opened just last week. Fifty-six thousand square feet! Besides the food, it contains a bank, a pharmacy, and a photo center. Thousands of people flocked to the store as if it had just done a heroic deed and needed to be congratulated. But my heart was heavy. It seemed to offer anti-society, reasons to get in and get out as quickly as possible: overwhelming crowds, check-out lines, no opportunity to get to know anybody. And what chance did I have in that pandemonium of hearing something so subtle as the chiming of water bottles?

While tremendous numbers of people patronize these monster stores in pursuit of lower prices, there seems to be just enough of the rest of us to keep a pilot light going for the smaller shops. Prices might be a bit higher on average because of smaller sales volumes; but we live with the people who own these stores, and we thrive on their commitment to the community they share with us. Their businesses are intimate corners in a landscape that malls and megastores have made too big for the human activities of conservation, fellowship, and benign eavesdropping (those water bottles!).

I finally did drive to our new giant supermarket yesterday, out of sheer curiosity. The store's spokesman had told reporters on opening day that there were 30,000 items on the shelves. Despite these riches, I felt no compulsion to linger, for there was no idle chatter, no allowance made for missing pennies, and alas, no snowshoes.

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