A store that's stood the test of time

Crane's Country Store in Williamsburg, Mo., has been selling everything from farming supplies to groceries since 1926.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Retro: Crane's Country Store in Williamsburg, Mo., has been selling everything from farm supplies to groceries since 1926.
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The six-word lunch menu at Crane's Country Store in tiny rural Williamsburg, Mo., (pop. 99) has not varied in more than 70 years. It remains "one meat, one cheese, one dollar." The bargain sandwich is prepared and served as many as 200 times a day by the busy clerk working at the sole cash register in the center of the store. Customers have a choice of 18 different meats and 12 different cheeses on their sandwich.

But Crane's isn't just a quick lunch spot. The next person in line may be buying a cattle trough or a box of cereal. This is one of only a few authentic country stores in America, and it attracts a broad base of loyal customers with a varied line of country merchandise and personal service.

"We offer just enough to get you going," says David Crane, who owns and operates the stores with his father, Joe. He's referring to a small selection of groceries and a large assortment of work clothes, knives, farm gates, hunting supplies, and an inventory of two or three items of just about anything someone may need once every few years.

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A first-time visitor to Crane's might notice that some customers leave without paying. That's because "regulars" may opt to have their purchases added to an ongoing tally that's kept in a cubbyhole behind the cash register. No statements are mailed and no reminders are sent. When a customer is ready to settle an account – every other month, twice a year, or however often is convenient – he inquires what the total is, and pays. No interest is charged.

Since the store is such an integral part of the local community, residents often consider it an unofficial part of the police and fire department and dial the store's number in an emergency. "Our number just comes to mind first," Mr. Crane explains. He then calls 911.

"If a cow gets out of a pasture, they call here to let us know so we can find the owner," he continues, "and the mailman leaves mail at the store when he cannot pass over the nearby creek, which sometimes floods."

For those who stop by for sandwiches, the store often serves as a lunchroom. Several chairs and a couch next to the cast-iron, wood-burning stove from the 1930s attract winter visitors. In warmer weather, customers can head outside to sit in metal patio chairs.

The Crane family has been operating a country store since the late 1800s. The first one was in Mineola, Mo., just east of Williamsburg.

Known initially as the Harrison and Crane store, it was purchased by Benjamin Rush Crane, David's great-grandfather, who renamed it B.R. Crane and Sons. It was moved to its present location, about an hour west of St. Louis, in 1926 by Sam Crane, David's grandfather.

The Williamsburg location is alongside Boone's Lick Trail, which was blazed in the early 1800s by Nathan and Daniel Boone. In the 1920s, the trail was the dirt road favored by Americans migrating west, and the store stocked what they needed.

A few years ago, David Crane decided to post a few signs alongside Interstate 70, which passes less than a mile from the store. They began attracting curious travelers lured by the promise of that dollar sandwich and perhaps the expectation of a tourist attraction.

Few were prepared for what they encountered inside the creaking front door. In seconds, new visitors realize they've entered a time warp.

"At some point a new customer will look up and their mouth will drop open, mesmerized by what is hanging from the original tin ceiling," Crane says, laughing. "That is how we know they have not been in before."

Crane's has a "museum" on its ceiling. Suspended like stalactites in a cave is a variety of old-fashioned merchandise.

Included are large collections of old toys, tools, kitchen utensils, baby buggies, and old lanterns. Almost all are covered with a layer of dust.

More memorabilia – framed arrowheads, old calendars, and advertising posters – are hung on the walls. Display cases filled with antique dolls, pipes, and other collections are scattered among the merchandise for sale.

"My family was never good at throwing anything away," Crane says, adding that various family members have always collected different things. Beginning not long after the doors opened in 1926, the store became the place for members of every generation to display what each valued.

Visitors who want to explore the quirky store spend much of their time backing up since most aisles are wide enough for only one person. Crane acknowledges the tight quarters, but adds, "We don't waste space."

One reason the store is so crowded is that some items are displayed in more than one location. When a customer recently inquired about work gloves, he was taken to a selection and then told about two other locations where he should look.

"We scatter similar merchandise about the store so people can find what they need a little easier," Crane says.

A sizable portion of the store is devoted to work clothes, an important niche that has helped ensure the survival of Crane's while other small stores died as big- box stores began to proliferate.

In the 1970s, when a nuclear plant was being built in Callaway County, where Cranes is located, the workers discovered the tiny store and began to rely on it to order the boots and apparel they needed.

Crane's began stocking every size of work clothing they needed in all seasons, and when the plant was completed and the workers moved on, they continued to purchase via mail order.

Closer to home, word of mouth brings workers from several hours away, confident that the store will have whatever they need in their size.

But Crane hasn't ignored the modern age. A year ago he began selling on the Internet and has gained customers from around the world.

But for many loyal patrons, ordering from a website will never equal the pleasure of visiting the old store in person. They relish the idea of buying a dollar sandwich and then sitting out front on the old metal porch chairs and chatting with the locals.

Discussions might include the old car for sale in the field across the street or the fancy new farm tractor that just drove up. For many, it's the perfect place to reminisce about the "good old days" that still exist a few feet away.

Then visitors can mosey a few hundred feet down the block to the next building. When the Cranes ran out of ceiling and wall space to display the things they love, they opened Crane's Museum. Inside is the rest of the Crane collection of memorabilia and another trip down memory lane.

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