I grew up in a General Mercantile store. For those who may not know what a General Mercantile is, it’s Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart was cool (that’s assuming Wal-Mart was EVER cool!). It was the store in the small town where a person went to do one-stop shopping. My grandfather owned the store. I believe that store had more to do with shaping me as a person than perhaps anything else.
The General Mercantile was a magical place. There were endless opportunities to explore, there were endless people to encounter, there were endless places to hide, there were endless stacks to pilfer. One end of my grandfather’s store was reserved for hardware. One side was reserved for dry goods (clothes, shoes, small kitchen appliances), the back was reserved for feed and seed, and the front, well, that area was reserved for groceries. At one time, my grandfather even sold radios and televisions. He had an old workbench in an area between the feed and seed department and the meat market where he worked on televisions and radios.
I spent my growing-up years hanging around the store. After school often found me at the store (if there wasn’t ball practice). Saturdays were spent at the store. When I reached the age of 12, Pa put me on the “payroll,” and I “worked my way” through school. Almost every Saturday was spent as a bag boy at the store. If there weren’t groceries to bag and take to people’s cars, I could generally be found sporting a broom sweeping up dirt. It was dusty in that old store–it sat on the main street, and the door was kept open from April – September. Every time a car passed on the main street, the wind brought dirt and dust blowing into the store.
Wow! Saturday was a busy day! In those days (ha! I feel old saying that!), people came to town on Saturday. Having lived in Monroe the past two years, and in places like Benton, Minden and Morgan City, previously, it’s funny to think of people coming to Chatham and thinking they were “going to town,” but I remember growing up when a trip to Monroe was a once a month thing, and that was often only to go to the doctor or hospital. Heck, when I was young, there was even a doctor in Chatham. The streets of our little town (Chatham) would be lined with cars on Saturday. There were two other grocery stores in town at the time, but none had the extensive selection of items my grandfather had. There was also a barber shop, the bank, the City Café (which was a converted movie theater) and three gas stations in “downtown” Chatham. The town was abuzz with activity, and I can remember just wishing for 5:00 p.m. (I guess we’re born with that gene, huh?).
Life in the General Mercantile shaped me more than probably anything else. How so? I love people. There is little doubt in my mind that my love for people is deeply rooted in my time spent at the General store. I love to hear people’s stories, where they’ve come from, where they’ve been. I love to hear the lies they tell, the tragedies they’ve experienced, and the success they’ve attained (both real and imagined). There was an old stove that sat in the middle of the General store. In the wintertime people would gather around the old stove and tell all those stories. I learned to listen to those stories. I learned to love those stories. I still do today. I catch myself all the time asking people, “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living?” That curiosity is borne out of meeting people in that old store.
I also learned how to treat people in that old store. Across the street, in the City Café, there was still a front door and a back door. There was a front counter and a back counter, if you get my meaning. Yeah, it was the 1970’s, and things were still a bit confusing in the small town. Not at the General Store. There was one door, well, there was the front door and two back doors. One back door was where we loaded out the appliances and other big ticket items in hardware and dry goods, and the other back door was where we loaded out the feed and seed. Everyone with money came through the front door. There was no black or white at the General Mercantile. The only color that mattered was green. My grandparents treated every customer the same, with the same respect, and with the same courtesy.
I learned my work ethic in that store, too. One of the legacies my grandfather left me (well, all my grandparents–okay, my parents, too) was a strong work ethic. He ran that store six days a week from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., and he got up on Sunday morning and used the excuse of going to check on the “cold” boxes to go to the store. He was there on Sunday from around 8 a.m. – Noon. It was his way of getting around the “blue” laws in those days (there’s that phrase again). He wasn’t technically open, but he never turned anyone away who happened to knock on the door while he was reading the paper and “checking” on the coolers. He worked all his life. He was big on customer service. I often think my attentiveness to a person’s experience when they come to the church is driven by watching and learning customer service from my grandfather.
There were probably a few less-than-stellar lessons I learned hanging around that old store. Entitlement is one that comes to mind. I’ll just say it. My brothers and me, and our cousins were spoiled by that old store. We had run of the place when we were there. There was an old Coca-Cola machine (boy, wish I had that now!) that stood in the front corner. It wasn’t a vending machine. It had the door that opened, you pulled out your favorite beverage, and took it to the counter and paid. My brothers and cousins didn’t have to pay. Any time we wanted a drink, we got one. That simple. Not good! The same with the candy counter. There was a big glass case that sat right at the front door. You actually had to go around it to get into the store. It was filled with all types of candy and other sweet treats. Throughout the day, we simply walked by and picked up what we wanted. Pa or Mama Kit never said a thing. There’s no telling how much we cost our grandparents in sodas and candy. We couldn’t wait to get out of school everyday so we could go by the store and get a cold soda and a candy bar. It spoiled us. I can tell.
Our lives are shaped by all our experiences, both positively and negatively, often from the same experience. Those experiences have made us who we are. God has used them to shape us. He has used the experience of the General Store to nurture my love for His people. He uses the experience of the General Store to gently call me to accountability when greed and a sense of entitlement start to drive my decisions. I suppose it’s another way “that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose for them” Romans 8:28 (NLT).
Don’t know why, I just woke up in a nostalgic mood this morning. I loved that old store!
Until next time, keep looking up…