The worst of the capitalistic system coupled with an unbridled planning commission that approves every box store and expansion will be on display Sunday evening as the IGA grocery store on Lima Road – a business open for 64 years – will close its doors. The IGA is one of the last small grocery stores to inhabit our City, but just like so many other small grocery stores, it will now disappear.
Capitalism allows no room for smallness in many areas of the business world. Yes, we will have our niche markets such as Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s, but those are not the same as the grocery stores of old. There will be those who shrug their shoulders and say “tough luck, that’s the way it is” in a competitive capitalistic system, and there will be others who cringe at the thought of losing yet another piece of our history – the old-fashioned grocery store. I am in the latter group as those of you who know me would expect.
I have an attachment to the grocery store world. I grew up in South Whitley, and our family owned a small grocery store. It was only 10,000 square feet – a mere midget by today’s standards. But it was our life, our livelihood, and our pride and joy. For 30 years – until 1978 – we served the people of South Whitley. We weren’t open every day of the week because back then businesses still respected the notion that employees should enjoy some time off and a business should close its doors to allow for some leisure time.
I was literally born into the grocery business. My Dad, Gene Weybright, bought the store with Gene Glassley, a distant cousin, in January 1948. The store was named the G & G Market – representing the initials of their first names. One month later, in February 1948, I was born.
Back in those days, the legal age to obtain a social security card and work for pay was 14. That didn’t stop my parents from putting me and my brother to work doing small tasks years before I reached the magic age. From about the age of 9 or 10, I worked at the store. I handed boxes to my Grandma Weybright – whom everyone called Rosie even though her name was Louetta. I helped stock shelves with Grandma and my Dad.
Early on I learned to count back change. Grandma Weybright patiently stood by my side as I struggled to hand back the correct amount – $1.23 + 2 pennies makes $1.25 + a quarter makes $1.50 + a .50 cent piece makes $2.00. Whew! Thank you and have a good day! But I learned to count back change – something that most kids don’t even understand in today’s world of computerized cash registers that impersonally tell you what to return.
Once I got my social security card at the age of 14, then I could work for real. My brother – who is a year and a half younger – and I were expected to work every afternoon after we got home from school. I was allowed to go to the drugstore with my friends for a cherry coke or an ice cream soda, but once I was done, I was expected to get to work.
My junior high, high school, and young adulthood years were spent in our world of the grocery store we owned. As I got older, I took on more responsibility – ordering stock, learning to cut meat for the meat case, wrapping produce, doing payroll, and delivering groceries to our older citizens. We knew everyone by name who entered our double front doors. Our motto – drummed into our heads from an early age – was the customer is always right. Sometimes we had to bite our tongues when we knew we were right and they weren’t, but God forbid if we challenged a customer on an issue.
The store exuded such wonderful smells. We closed in the evening at 6:00, so the store would be locked up for about 12 or 13 hours. Dad usually got around and went down at about 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. After I got older, I would sometimes take Dad’s place, and open the store for business. I would unlock the back door, turn on the back room lights, and head up front through the rickety swinging doors that separated our back stock room from the actual store.
A smell of bananas, strawberries, and produce would greet me as I walked through the swinging doors. The produce was left out as it is today. But in today’s huge buildings, the vegetables and fruits have no identity – they are only a small part of a gigantic building that contains thousands of other items. In our store, the smallness of the building provided the perfect opportunity for the smells to congregate in the air.
We delivered groceries six days a week for free. It didn’t matter whether the order was two items or twenty items. It didn’t matter that we had a blizzard that left us without electricity. It didn’t matter that it was 5 degrees below zero. It didn’t matter that we struggled through two feet of snow or 90 degree heat. We still delivered. Sometimes it was the only contact our older customers had for the week.
When we delivered, we spent time talking to our customers and sharing their past and present. Many a time we would walk in and would be greeted with enthusiasm and the joy of telling us what a grandchild had accomplished or showing us a newly framed picture that had arrived and assumed its honored place on top of an old piano.
We ran charge accounts – something that today is unheard of. Many of our customers struggled to make ends meet, and they needed help. We would run a charge account for a week or two until they received their paycheck. The books we used were the old-fashioned receipt books with the carbon paper in between the sheets. Almost everyone honored their promise to us to pay for their groceries, and we lost very little in the way of unpaid accounts.
People mattered to us. We mattered to them. Today, when I do my grocery shopping – usually at Meijer – I know they could care less about my thoughts or concerns. Sometimes at the check out, the cashier spends time talking to a bagger and literally ignores me. And why not, the scanner rings up the groceries using the bar code, the card machine takes my payment, the swirling rack with the plastic sacks rolls around for me to unload into my cart, and then I am done. The receipt is hurriedly shoved into my hand with a quick “thank you – have a nice day”, and I am on my way.
The pieces of our history are slowly disappearing. How many today still remember the old grocery stores with the wood floors, the barrels containing crackers, brown sugar, and pickles? How many remember when the customer mattered and had a face and a name? What happens to us when we no longer have those memories and we no longer have that connection to our past?
I regret that I do not have any pictures of our old store. The pictures that I have are my memories, and when I am gone, those pictures will be gone. What happens when the generations who remember these parts of our history are gone? How do we keep our history alive, and most of all, how do we make sure that our history relates to our present?
The small, old-fashioned grocery store is but one fatality of our modern system of capitalism and Wal-Martism. The small stores can’t compete, and so they disappear, relegated to memories that someday, also, will be gone.