Everything but a submarine ride

THE newspaper story about that new shopping mall in Alberta made me think of my uncle's country store in Harmony. This new shopping center in Edmonton is the world's finest and largest, with several hundred stores and attractions offering every service and convenience from cradle to grave, but Uncle Ralph offered all that at his place except for the ride in the submarine. Well, there was a freshet one spring and in jest Uncle Ralph offered a free boat ride in his basement to everybody who bought 10 pounds of sugar. I've been wondering, accordingly, if a faithful duplicate of Uncle Ralph's store wouldn't serve the same purpose and cost a good deal less than a computerized shopping mall. We do need to realize that the ``country store'' has become something else. Few of the country stores now using that term will likely list the goods and services my uncle offered. As a starter, his business included a hotel. It wasn't much, but the salesmen who came by steam car from Pittsfield to sell him goods had to spend the night somewhere. Supper was 50 cents, and breakfast went with the room at $2. Then they'd catch the ``down train'' in the morning. He also had the post office. This was lucrative for a while, but my uncle's aggressive methods backfired.

Harmony, a town of a few hundred, had a fourth-class post office in a corner of Uncle Ralph's main store. Fourth-class postmasters didn't get a salary but were paid 125 percent of their stamp sales. This wasn't much, but the post office did bring people to the store and most bought something while there. So Uncle Ralph wrote to all the newspapers and magazines he knew about and asked for copies to sell. Unsold copies could be returned for credit, and it was the practice to cut off the headings and return them as proof. But Uncle Ralph returned the entire copy, mailing each first class, special delivery, insured and registered. Every time he sold himself a dollar's worth of stamps, Uncle Sam would pay him $1.25.

The people of Harmony had heretofore known only the Skowhegan Independent Reporter, so this did uplift the community culture somewhat, but the new prosperity of the post office was its own undoing. Because of increased business, Uncle Sam elevated Harmony to a third-class office, putting Uncle Ralph on a stated salary. This salary was less than his stamp percentage, so he learned a good lesson and was sad.

The limitations of space fortunately prevent my listing all of Uncle Ralph's businesses. He carried some milling machinery and sold feeds and farm supplies. He cut ice and stored it, and peddled it all summer. He had a sawmill and a shingle bolter, and he bought and shipped pulpwood for a down-state paper mill. He sold fire insurance and dabbled in real estate.

His livery stable did rent a horse and buggy now and then but was mainly to house his own horses for the store's delivery wagons. He was the agent for Singer sewing machines, and once a month a man would come on the train to sit in the store's front window and make repairs and adjustments.

Being in a wildlife region, Uncle Ralph carried a good stock of sporting goods and ammunition, and he rented canoes and tents. He bought pelts in season, as agent for a hide and fur company in St. Louis. When he bought his first small truck for grocery deliveries, he put in a gasoline pump and sewed up a distributorship.

I'm sure no shopping mall will have the optician's display from which Uncle Ralph sold eyeglasses -- the customer tried different lenses until he could comfortably read the Bible provided. Uncle Ralph's roller skating rink didn't get much use in the summer, so he converted in season to a corn shop and apple canning factory. One side of his main store was given to ladies' wear and yard goods, and opposite was a full line of men's clothing and boots and shoes. The Oriental rugs were upstairs, with household items and furniture.

As for groceries -- you name it and he had it. Where would a shopping mall find a dipper for pickles? A stem of bananas and a banana knife? A pump for molasses and another for vinegar -- in barrels? How about that long stick with tongs and trigger for bringing cornflakes down off the top shelf? A cheese case and a cheese knife?

And what does any of the stores in Edmonton's magnificent shopping mall do about a ``treat'' for the customer who comes in on Saturday and pays his bill? Would any of them know that a ``harness cask'' is the place to corn brisket? Uncle Ralph was also master of the Grange.

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