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Cheryl (Vanatter) Pearson Remembers Van’s Groceteria

October 14, 2022

Vans Staff - Cheryl Vanatter, Henry Popert, Tom Jamieson, Doreen Armstrong , Nancy Vanatter, Keith Tamblyn, Reta Bailey, Earl Vanatter, Ina Vanatter , Wayne Harpell, Jack Vanatter took photo

In the mid twentieth century, many people considered owning a main street store to be a good profession. In an age when many families were farmers and many more worked in trades or hospitality, a large proportion of prominent village residents owned a business. Having a likeable personality was a big part of being a storekeeper, as many of their customers looked forward to catching up when they visited. Far from seeing their neighbours as competition, the village merchants often spent their spare time together, whether it was at the curling rink or improving the town through the Rotary Club.

When Cheryl Pearson’s grandparents, Earl and Emily Vanatter, went into business as Van’s Meat Market in 1932, they were the seventh store that sold groceries in Fenelon Falls. By the time their son Jack and his wife Ina retired in 1976, the only other store was John Sobko’s IGA, and until Thurston’s Butcher Shop opened this past spring, Sobeys has been the only show in town for many years. A lot has changed over the decades. Gone are the days when each little store had their own speciality, and it would be hard to get by on the volume of sales that some stores had during the Great Depression.

Van’s Groceteria sold milk, bread, vegetables and everything else customers would expect, but they were best known as the village butcher shop. Behind the meat counter they had a big walk-in cooler, that could accommodate half a cow. The meat would hang from the ceiling, so Earl, or his son Jack, could cut the animal up into roasts. “None of it was prepackaged like today.” At the meat counter they would have some common cuts ready to go, labelled with metal price signs, with two prongs extending down into the meat. “But if someone wanted something specific, they would just go into the cooler and cut up what the customer wanted.” They also prepared pork, chicken, veal and lamb to order. Earl advertised fresh caught lake trout and whitefish, which of course, had to be brought in from afar. Like many old shops, they had a heavy wooden butcher block behind the counter. The Vanatters wrapped their cuts in butcher paper.

Once Earl retired, Jack spent much of his time at the meat counter. Jack “was a great conversationalist, he loved to talk about everything that was going on around town.” His friends would often gather at the meat counter to talk about their common interests. Jack was a curler, council member, Rotarian and served on the fire department for 50 years. “There would always be something to talk about.” Ina dutifully kept the books or helped out at the cash for the family business.

The store had a large cooler for vegetables. Many types of produce like potatoes did not come pre-packaged. Spuds arrived in a 100 pound bag, “we would dump them in a cart and would put them in 5 or 10 pound paper bags for display.” A lot of the groceries came from La Mantia’s and Politos, who operated Lindsay wholesalers. They, in turn, drove all over the province tracking down inventory—trying to source everything in the shop was a big part of a grocer’s job. Cheryl often had the job of running across to Webster Brothers (now Cornerstone Home Furniture) for whatever cash and carry products the store needed at the time.

Back then, there was a seasonal cycle to what could be purchased in the grocery store. Berries were available in August, squash in fall, in winter it was vegetables and oranges trucked up from the south. Many fruits and vegetables were not available year round. When the 11 quart baskets of blueberries or sour cherries came in, many families bought them to make preserves. “All of our vegetables needed to be refrigerated, so we kept them in the cooler at the back. If anything looked like it would spoil, it came up to our place and that’s what we ate. If a can got dinted, we got the dinted can. Grandma would have to figure out how to turn it all into something appetizing. Right up until dad died, he was very conscious about not letting anything go to waste.”

There were stands in front of Van’s Groceteria, exhibiting the produce they had for sale. “I remember a lot of squash, often displayed in baskets. Every season there would be something different on those slanted shelves out front. In spring, we would get flowers from Rudy Fintleman—like pansies and petunias. We bought our tomatoes from Doug Martin, and had another local supplier before him. Much of what we sold was from the surrounding community.”

Cheryl fondly remembers grinding coffee, “we had a large grinder which I loved to operate for the customers. I think that is why I love the smell of coffee, even if I don’t care to drink it.  To this day, the smell of coffee takes me back to our family’s store, whether that was stocking shelves, preparing fresh vegetables for display, slicing meat, sweeping the floors at the end of day, watering the boxed plants outside, delivering groceries, or grinding beans.” It seemed like there was always something that needed to be done while working at a grocery store.

Van’s operated in the days before computers, and products didn’t come with UPC or PLU codes. “We had an ink stamp, and spent many hours putting 10 cent stickers on the top of cans.” They also used a can of spray paint and stencils to make their own display signs, like Wonder Bread, 5 for $1. The cashier typed in the prices manually, and there was no HST to worry about. Van’s got by with a single cash register.

Up to the 1960s and 1970s, grocery stores offered a level of service that would be unusual today. “We would pack up the groceries into paper bags, or a cardboard box if the client preferred, and take them out to the cars. We delivered groceries too.” As she packed bags, Cheryl learned to be careful, there was “no squished bread, broken eggs or bruised fruit on my shift.” Jack had a bicycle with a basket on front for the groceries and they also had a van. It was of course, free delivery, and “we would even carry them in.”

Van’s was an old-fashioned grocery store. Earl had started Van’s Meat Market on the west side of Colborne Street, then moved when he purchased Bill Palmer and Jack Ellery’s clothing store in 1939. During the Second World War, the Dominion store next door closed, and he expanded into selling groceries as well, rechristening the business as Van’s Groceteria. To the end of their time, the building remained a traditional village shop, complete with the old hardwood floors. Many customers would remember the groans of the boards as they walked through. “We used to sprinkle them with a powder to keep the dust down, then sweep.”

In between the two stores the Vanatters operated, there was a door, leading to the apartments upstairs. Earl and Emily lived on one side and Jack and Ina on the other with their kids. “I enjoyed growing up above the store. I was close to the public school and there were snow banks out front that seemed like they must be 8 feet high. We would toboggan down them into the space between our store and McFarland’s.”

Being neighbours, the Vanatters often shopped at McFarland’s store. Alice “was my grandmother’s age and we typically went there to buy shoes. But one time we got shoes and they were not from McFarland’s. We were told not to say anything, because we didn’t want to hurt their feelings, that we didn’t get the shoes from then. So my sister went in and peeked around the corner and said ‘Ha, Ha, Mrs. Farland, you can’t see my new shoes,” and my parents were terribly embarrassed.” Sisters Cheryl, Linda and Nancy Vanatter often dropped by at Coburn’s drug store to look at the comic books.

Up to 1957, when the IGA opened (at 10 Colborne Street, now Fenelon Lakes Club’s Sales Office… In 1983 it moved to the newly built 14 Colborne Street, now Red Apple) Fenelon Falls only had the traditional general stores and butcher shops. “When John Sobko opened the new IGA it was quite a sensation, because it was all brand new and fancy.” But a lot of customers still came to Van’s for the quality of the meat they sold.

By the 1970s, the grocery business was evolving, and a lot of modification would be needed to keep up with expectations now that the IGA was in town. “To the end, my mother was working with an adding machine to do all the accounting.” The Vanatters put an addition on the back for more storage, but they were facing the need to make a lot of upgrades to the store. So they decided to retire and sold the business to Carl Quaranto. “Then they made huge changes to the store, and it was no longer the small family type of business” that had characterized Van’s. “My mom knew everyone’s name. She was often on cash, so everyone knew her well.”

When Vanatter’s retired, it was a real change for the village—the grocery stores that came after did not have the same old-fashioned feel to them. Over the years they had made many friends while in business. But as they retired the remained active in their community. They were still young, in their late 40s, and loved to travel, Jack would serve on the fire department, until he was 70—he really loved being part of the crew. Together, Jack and Ina made the most of their retirement.

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