Why We Bagged It
by Elizabeth Folwell
We moved to the Adirondacks in March 1976 and became gradually cemented in place by the accumulation of certain worldly goods: wood stove, chain saw, snowshoes, canoe. Collecting experiences helped us put down roots as well. We learned how to make maple syrup (don’t tap cherry trees, for starters), how to execute a proper do-si-do, how to swim in frigid waters (the first lesson coming after sinking a friend’s sailboat because we forgot to check the drain plugs, and the second after demonstrating white-water canoe strokes without informing our dog what we planned to do). We joined the fire department and the ambulance squad. But nothing was quite so declarative of our notions to become part of the community as going into business in downtown Blue Mountain Lake.
It was spring 1980, and my partner and I were both on unemployment following the end of the Olympics and the demise of CETA. Once a week we had gone to a church basement in Tupper Lake to correctly answer the Three Big Questions: Were you able to work? Did you look for work? Did you refuse any work?
Clearly there was no future in that activity, and few full-time jobs loomed on the horizon. There was a tantalizing prospect, though, since the old general store in town was for sale at a reasonable price. We attempted to buy the place, but someone else moved more quickly. They desired the property as an investment and had no intention of running a business, so we ended up as tenants.
Our strongest asset was ignorant enthusiasm.
What could be so difficult about running a grocery store? Why, we had spent countless hours buying and eating food! Our combined experience in retail sales had been limited to part-time jobs at a ski shop and a discount department store, which didn’t exactly prepare us for being owners, managers, cashiers, butcher and bookkeeper, but we had ideas about the possibilities of being merchants.
We had about six weeks to get the place washed, painted, refurbished and stocked. We had to find suppliers for groceries, produce, meat, soda, beer, dairy products, ice cream, newspapers, candy, crackers, chips, bread, ice, bags and sundries; it turned out there were two or three companies we had to buy from in each category, because, for example, Coke doesn’t sell Pepsi. The bills began to pile up, what with orders and repairs to things like compressors for walk-in coolers. Then there were permits to get, paperwork to file and deposits to pay.
We connected with a huge wholesaler for our main grocery supply, and the Syracuse office sent a salesman to walk us through our first order, which was utterly mind boggling: imagine every item you could possibly expect to find in a compact but well-stocked grocery store, then order a couple cases of it. Then think of all the things you don’t like and would never in a zillion years waste your money on, and order some of those too.
Then pay for it all. Because we were new customers, our first order—thousands of dollars worth of ketchup, toothpicks, dish soap, onions, soup, baby food, dog biscuits, paper towels, TV dinners—was cash. Not a check or money order, but actual dollar bills exchanged for a tractor-trailer load of stuff. The salesman helped us arrange the shelves according to the protocol that dictates the olives go next to pickles go next to vinegar and so forth. Within hours, the place looked like we were in business, and we had totally blown years of savings. Even if we failed miserably and no one came to our store, we wouldn’t starve, we rationalized, and if necessary, we’d learn to make wholesome meals out of condiments.
We opened on May 15, offering free coffee and cookies. Folks came, drank coffee, said nice things and left. We got some good advice—“Eat your mistakes at home,” “Don’t let anybody talk you into charge accounts,” “Take orders over the phone, but don’t do it for free,”— and hired a couple of strong, tireless teenagers and a savvy neighbor so that the store could be open seventy hours a week. My partner and I took Sunday afternoons off, but that was all.
The building itself was what drew us into commerce. A solid, three-story structure, for more than half a century it had anchored the community, providing all the necessities and more than a few luxuries. A small room had served as the post office for several years, and the upstairs, a vast open space about thirty by sixty feet, once sold hardware and dry goods. The nail bins were still there along the wall and a wire rack for lantern chimneys hung above a display table. Under the eaves were the records for M. Callahan and Company, boxes of bills with ornate engraved letterheads and the odd, charming mementos of town life from long ago: a poster for the House of David basketball team playing in North Creek and miniature slates for ordering staples like blacking, bluing, codfish, currants, sago, sal soda and saleratus. The place hinted at a tradition that we hoped we might recapture, and perhaps even profit from.
We got to know our suppliers, who provided a human link to that past. As you’d expect, they were older men, independent guys who worked long hours. There was Milton, who went to the Syracuse farm market at four a.m. each day, then drove north to sell produce to restaurants, lodges, camps and stores. He marveled when we bought watercress and sold it out in a day. “You’ve got the trade here,” he said, and proceeded to educate us by bringing up ambrosial white peaches, succulent yellow cherries and tiny salt potatoes. There was John, who’d arrive with his dual-axle truck brimming with plump old-fashioned tomatoes he grew on his farm, and Freddy, who was a pirate at heart but always made deals on lightly bruised bananas, slightly limp spinach and other bargains. Ralph the iceman was a gentle soul who refinished barroom shuffleboard rigs and transported them to tournaments in a cut-off school bus during cold weather; he timed his deliveries to our place so he’d arrive just as we were closing up and we could sit in the back office next to the roll-top desk, sipping root beer and listening to him talk of selling block ice from a horse-drawn wagon throughout Black River valley towns.
The meat purveyors weren’t a link with the past but a feeble connection to the future. Our main supplier, in Utica, was in the throes of computerizing its operations, which meant unfathomable bills, mixed-up orders and deliveries that invariably came between midnight and dawn. There’s nothing quite as rude as being awakened from a sound slumber to unload cold, dripping boxes of beef, pork and chicken.
Our first big weekend was Memorial Day. It was exhilarating to ring up orders and help customers depart with bulging brown bags. Everything seemed to work; nobody seemed to notice that we were clueless. June was slow, but it offered a chance to practice making hamburger, trimming lettuce and keeping track of inventory.
All hell broke loose in July. Our customers wanted things (rolling papers, condoms, racy magazines) that we never dreamed of selling, and sometimes bought far more off the shelves than what we had anticipated. I spent a sleepless night before Independence Day wondering where I’d find a case of butter to go with the thirty dozen ears of com we had to sell. My partner gallantly turned huge ungainly hunks of meat into symmetrical roasts and chops (we ate the wedge-shaped nubbins that defied categorization). I vowed we’d never run out of toilet paper or disposable diapers. We became snack-food connoisseurs.
We learned a lot about provisions, planning and human behavior. Since most of our daily customers were on vacation, we were witness to subtle social dynamics. For example, no one grocery shops for fun. People have certain expectations of how food stores should work and tend not to be open-minded when things are a little bit different. Dads shop while on vacation, but from our sample it seems that they do not participate much in the activity during the rest of the year. We base our finding on the oft-repeated episode of the man of the house ordering a custom-cut steak the size of Delaware and responding with hysterical disbelief to the cost.
Some people also clearly leave their good manners at home. I spent twenty minutes sobbing in the meat locker after a customer called me a bad name because I had ordered caraway-rye bread rather than dill. Another customer threw lamb chops at my partner, shrieking they were spoiled. (She was wrong. They were delicious.) A frail-looking, determined woman wrenched the lock out of our door when she forced her way in to get a Sunday New York Times; apparently she missed the large poster that said CLOSED and couldn’t hear us yelling, “Wait! Stop!!”
The newspapers truly were our worst nightmare. We likened summer folks’ need for news of the outside world to an addictive drug that blinded them to their immediate environment. On brilliant sunny mornings, when any right-thinking individual would be hiking or canoeing or at least enjoying the fresh air from an Adirondack chair, people would line up outside to get a paper, watching through the window with pathetic hope etched on their faces as we bustled to assemble hundreds of papers from all the different sections. There was a newsprint shortage that summer, so we never quite got our requested allotment. Papers were highly sought after and occasionally caused ugly incidents, such as the infamous NYT tug-of-war.
One summer morning, a female visitor muttered that the twenty-five-cent profit we eked out of a six-pound Sunday paper was despicable and accused us of ripping her off. “Don’t buy it,” said my partner, gently removing it from her hands. “But I want it,” she said, as she yanked back. “Then pay for it,” he said, holding firmly onto his end of the bundle. “You’re impossible,” she shouted as she tried to wrest the paper from his grasp. “So are you, lady!” he said. The other customers cheered as she exited. That day marked a subtle yet profound change in our attitude. No more tears in the cooler, no more apologies for ground round that cost two bucks a pound. We realized most of our customers didn’t want to have a relationship with us, they just wanted to buy things and get out of the store. We began to understand what our neighbors had probably known all along, that no matter how much we wanted it to, the store couldn’t sustain us through the winter. The days when the place was the life-support system of town were long gone. We couldn’t compete with the bright lights of Long Lake and Indian Lake, and folks had become habituated to going ten miles down the road to the bank, the hairdresser, the lumberyard, and, yes, the supermart.
We put a last, best effort into stocking the store for big-game season with the kinds of things we imagined hunters would crave after a long day in the woods: hot dogs, Canadian bacon, pork rinds, doughnuts. We were about twenty years too late, though, since most hunters had long ago gotten in the habit of picking up the essentials before they left home. Business dwindled to a trickle, then stopped altogether, which was a good thing because it was awfully hard to keep the building from freezing with one lonely kerosene heater. On November 1, we gave it up for good.
What we gained from those frenzied weeks was all the wieners the hunters eschewed (two full cases, or close to five hundred; to this day, the sight of a hot dog fills me with a curious mixture of nostalgia and loathing), several cases of cheap beer and soda, lots of canned goods (butter beans, creamed corn and sardines), boxes of Jell-O in assorted perky colors, jars of generic jam, crates of industrial-strength paper products and enough breakfast cereal to last a year. We made about as much money as we would have had we both found minimum-wage jobs. Beyond that, though, the store was an education, a graduate semester in small-townology with a minor in microeconomics. We’re not in business anymore, but once in a while we imagine what it might be like to stand again behind the counter on a sultry evening, washed in the wan neon glow of a Genesee sign and counting out change.