Little big store

"Location, location, location," my lawyer brother reminded me the year I was looking for a house to buy. I'd found a perfectly charming home in a part of town that was not so charming. I ended up not buying the place, though the four walls still beckoned.

Recently, his words came back to me in another light. Charlie and I were devouring thick, wrist-bending deli sandwiches in a picnic shelter beside New Unionville's Lakeside Market in the middle of an afternoon's hay baling. It is a scene that repeats itself again and again in the summer, because the place is so handy, right at the other end of Bethel Lane. The fields we bale for hay stretch all up and down Bethel, so it is only a matter of hopping on a tractor and driving a short distance for work breaks and sustenance. It may be lunch, or a quick treat to revive hot and tired young helpers. It is uncanny what a blast of air conditioning and a cold soda can do for the flagging teenage soul. My son, Tim, who would honestly rather dream away an afternoon on the porch swing than bale hay, can rise to the occasion of another wagonload after Lakeside's revival.

The place may be small, but its ambience and location suit us to a T. It may not offer everything the town-centered mega-groceries do, but it has the basics, and we don't have to battle traffic and long check-out lines for groceries and other simple needs that spring up. If we find ourselves low on bleach to sanitize the milking equipment, the cows can wait in the holding barn the few minutes it takes to drive down Bethel Lane to the little store. If we need more rock salt as we crank their milk into ice cream, it's off to the little store. It even offers bagged ice that won't melt before we reach home.

Lots of folks call it "the little store," with a warm inflection on "little," in appreciation of all that little stands for: local, relaxed, less crowded, and friendlier than mercantile life is just a few miles away. When we walk into Lakeside looking as if we've just baled a few wagonloads, the folks there understand that's exactly what we've been doing. The flecks of hay wafting in our wake are ignored, and the sandwiches come extra thick.

Phil and Connie preside as its working owners. I've never entered Lakeside without seeing one of them in the office, at the register, stocking, pricing, taking inventory, or occasionally shooting the breeze with a customer in the entryway, where stacked bags of dog food make handy benches. They employ our neighbors, and introduce teens we've know since their childhood into the working world. My son, now 13, has his eye on the place for possible future employment as a stock boy. He thinks it will be easier than baling hay, and he may be right.

Then again, he may not.

Keeping a small place profitably up and running in a keenly competitive retail economy has got to be hard, thoughtful work. Phil and Connie don't gripe about it, any more than we do about putting up hay. We're all working for ourselves, which has its own compensations.

They've kept up with the times, adding a video-rental rack a few years back, squeezed in between the ice-cream freezer and cartons of soft drinks. Yet they remain old-fashioned in patronizing local growers and craftspeople. At the front of the registers are baskets of tomatoes and melons in the summer, and a table offering ceramics and even a quilt now and then. A special rack offers southern Indiana's Amish pies, breads, cakes, and noodles. Come spring, Phil buys morels from us and sells them to commuters from town.

The little store is a community resource and a spark for community life. The parking lot and gas pumps probably host more conversations among neighbors than our homes do, and the swinging glass doors announce everything from rummage sales and ballpark schedules to fund drives and antique tractor shows. The bulletin board just inside features lost dogs, homes and cars for sale by owners, and the business cards of local entrepreneurs.

We all have a stake in the store's survival, one way or another. It occurred to me the last time I plowed through one of those hefty deli sandwiches that we'd be hard-pressed to weather a hay season without the nearby little store. Its blast of air conditioning, cold sodas, and friendly faces revive me, too.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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