OPINION

The Flatlander

General Stores Brought Color, Life to Small-Town America

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We’ve taken one of the most beautiful things in all of commerce, and like most other successful initiatives, turned it into a cookie-cutter enterprise stamping it into existence at the edge every small town across the South.

Oh, how I miss the old-style, mom-and-pop general store.

I grew up in a small Arkansas town much like Mountain View, but with a less distinctive culture, and an economy based on cotton and soybeans. You could see for a hundred miles in any direction. If anything, Monette – in the heart of the Mississippi River delta – is flat.

The surprising thing for a town of a thousand people and change was that for so many years we had four thriving grocery stores, each with its own loyal following. Outside personal friendship, I’m not sure how patrons decided where they’d shop, but it was much like the local hairdresser scene. You danced with the one who brung you. And if you cheated on your grocer, word spread faster than if a Baptist deacon had run off with the constable’s wife.

I’m grateful for the general store chains we see popping up all over the South. They serve a huge purpose for rural America, and you can get just about anything you need in a quick in-and-out.
But let’s be honest, folks. These stores are as boring as watching grass grow. Zero personality. And why is it when I purchase three quick items the receipt is two and a half feet long and probably took an entire tree limb to produce?
Of the four stores in Monette, none really matched Flannigan’s, which went beyond day-to-day groceries.

lannigan’s was a true general store. And it had tons of personality. Creaking floors, colorful people.
Here are a few of my most special memories from Flannigan’s General Store.

•In its heyday, the store was run by a father and two sons named Russell and Robert. Robert was the business man; Russell, the front guy. All my life, Russell called me Even Steven.

•Just outside Flannigan’s store were three or four wooden benches where the old-timers gathered for hours each day under the shade of two oddly formed elm trees. They would spit tobacco and tell tall tales, and take the occasional ice-cold drink from a creaky water fountain that you pumped up and down with your hands. That’s the best water I’ve ever known.

•There was a major brouhaha that almost resulted in my entire extended family getting banned from Flannigan’s forever. One day, my younger cousin, Randy, who must have been about 6 at the time, found the old style seed bin with 20 compartments. The bins were filled with various garden seed and you used a big silver scoop to place them in a paper bag, the cost measured by weight. It included green beans, purple hull peas, okra, turnips, radishes, just about every garden seed you can imagine. In five minutes or less, Randy got loose and managed to mix every bin with the others, all the seeds now intermingled. It would have taken a millennia to separate the seeds and get everything back in order. They could only dump the whole supply and restock. Russell was not a happy camper that day, and who could blame him?

•There was an old-fashioned device where you could drop a nickel in the slot and it would measure your weight and tell your fortune. Not a bad deal for five cents.

•The butchers always had great personality. There was one named Vody, and another who looked like an Ollie. I’m not sure that was his name, but he looked a lot like an Ollie, and he had a pretty big nose. I distinctly remember a display that was always on top of the cooler and it frightened me a bit. Those jars of pickled pigs feet were like a bad accident. You couldn’t look away.
•Half the store was groceries, and the other half, dry goods. You could buy shoes and boots, overalls, all kinds of housewares, and the general store area had a certain smell. It was a pleasant smell, though I have no idea how to describe it.

•There was a Pepsi machine where you could drop a nickel and pull a bottled drink out of the display. Beside it was an ice-cream chest from which I must have badgered my parents a million times for a Push-Up or a Fudgsicle.
•We bought soft drinks in six-packs of big, bulky two-liter bottles made of glass. If you returned the bottles when you came back for more they gave a discount.

•It was at Flannigan’s where my father taught me a good life lesson. At 5, I decided stealing a candy bar was a good idea. Not true. I made it out of the store, but not past dad. He walked me right back inside and made me tell Russell I’d stolen it – one of the first lessons in grace I can remember.

•There were three of the sweetest ladies who worked there. I remember two of their names: Cordy and Madge. I always thought Madge was the same lady from the Palmolive dishwashing liquid commercials. You really have to reach back for that one.
I miss those days.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

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Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com.

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