October 6, 2023
By Guy Scott
General Stores were a legendary part of Canadian History. Every small town/village/hamlet had at least one long ago. They were just what the title said: general stores who sold such a wide variety of items, they couldn’t be named anything but general merchants. These items ranged from hardware, groceries, dry goods (clothing), animal feed, farm supplies… the list of goods is much too long to elaborate here. Some stores sold gasoline, coal oil, horse harness, appliances, and souvenirs: the list could be endless.
In the early days (pre WWI), much was sold in bulk, especially sugar, soda crackers, flour, nails, cheese, pickles, etc. etc. Store weigh scales were more essential to business than a cash register. Cash being scarce, barter was more often the order of the day. Eggs, butter and other easily handled items would be taken and credited towards the purchase of other store goods. In other words, it was a debit-credit economy, with little or no cash actually changing hands. At the end of a period (sometimes 1 year), the merchant and customer “settled accounts” or cleared the ledger. Store keepers would also take items they could not re-sell in their stores for credit as well. Food products such as butter, eggs, potatoes, fresh vegetables and grain were difficult to import, so the local merchant preferred to acquire them locally.
The Kinmount store keepers such as Hopkins and Marks or Doherty Brothers or Henry Graham would buy wood products such as tan bark, cord wood or fence posts and pay cash or give lines of credit. They then resold the products elsewhere. In pioneer times, extending credit to customers was common. The customer could run a charge account and settle up at a fixed interval. Charge sales likely outnumbered cash transactions. It was a measure of respect and trust that such transactions were common.
Store keepers were often noted for their generosity and kindness. Many a hard-up family got a break from the general store keeper. Alex Crego told a story from his childhood that backed up the generosity of “Uncle” Henry Graham, a prominent store keeper in the Kinmount of his youth. The young Alex would pilfer an egg from one of the Crego hens and take it to Uncle Henry. In exchange for the single egg, he was allowed to take a handful of candies from the penny candy jar on the counter. Alex quickly learned not to come every day or bring more than one egg, for the treat decreased with those transgressions.
The general store often served other roles in the community. In most villages and hamlets, it doubled as the post office. The store keeper received a small stipend for filling the role of post master, but it was more a community service or an excuse to get customers inside than a money maker. The Rockcroft General Store received $25 a year to dispense the Royal mail in 1910. The office sold $21.75 in stamps etc over the same period!
General stores were often the ‘coffee shops’ of their day. The older stores had an old wood stove for heat, and the stove was often surrounded by chairs or boxes filled with the local gossips. News from around the community and the world was “shared” during these meetings of the hot stove league. And oh the stories that were told! If only a fraction of these tales were available today! A few of these “coffee klatches” have existed into the present era, including at Flynn’s General Store near Buckhorn.
General stores did have their downsides. Many went bankrupt due to bad debts (not everyone paid up!) increased competition or changing times in the community. Competitors included other general stores (For years, Kinmount had at least 3 stores simultaneously operating), or pedlars. The pedlar went to the customer’s door to supply convenience. But they could not match the variety of the fixed general store. Mail order catalogues such as Eaton’s and Simpson’s cut into local business as well. One store keeper, who was also post master, sometimes opened letters addressed to the T. Eaton Company and crossed off items that he already carried in his store!
So what happened to the general stores of legend? Most are gone now. The times seemed to change. Larger stores appeared in the bigger towns and sold at cheaper prices with more variety. It is the age of the big ‘super-store,’ even in the rural communities. Easier transportation by car meant customers had the option of driving to the bigger centre/store. Stores became more specialized over time, concentrating on one specialty. Grocery stores, hardware chains and clothing stores evolved from the General Store. Gas stations and automotive dealers captured the automobile business.
Co-ops and farm supply stores moved into the farm supply business. The general store withered in the face of the increased competition, specialization and price wars from the larger chain stores. And oh yeah, coffee shops such as Tim Hortons stole the gossip business!
The true general store is a rare business today. Many closed or specialized. Most became ‘convenience stores’ that deal in such basic items such as convenience foods, snacks, beverages, ice cream, videos, lottery tickets, etc. Robinson’s General Store in Dorset, is famous, now reopened under new management. Flynn’s Store near Buckhorn, and maybe a few hold-outs in smaller hamlets such as Downeyville and Manila, but even they resemble convenience stores more than ye old General Store. The General Store Era is over: consigned to the pages of history and memory. But oh what a glorious run they had!