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Multi-Purpose Markets Recall General Stores


All across the country, at exits off superhighways, mega-gasoline stations are popping up -- sometimes several in a row. There, you can get everything from Mexican tacos to fresh flowers to postage stamps. And gasoline, of course. Even in town, gasoline retailers are re-inventing themselves as a sort of "general store."

A hundred years ago, everybody would have known that term: general store. Now it's archaic, old-fashioned, a vestige of simpler days when the general store was the cornerstone of American commerce.

You'll find a few of these cluttered business emporiums -- preserved and even stocked with goods -- at outdoor history museums like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. Shops elsewhere call themselves general stores, but most are just countrified gift shops.

Long ago in real, one-story, wooden general stores, customers could get salt pork, pickles, sugar, and nails out of barrels; plus bolts of cloth, pots and pans, chewing tobacco, and so-called "patent medicines," heavy on the alcohol. The general store was often the first place in town that got a telephone. That, and a chance to catch up on what's going on around town -- perhaps over a checker game near the pot-bellied stove -- were good reasons why locals and traveling salesmen loved to gather there.

A few genuine general stores survive outside museums. You'll find some along the remnants of legendary Route 66, the narrow, two-lane highway that once stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. These places don't carry pickles much any more, but you can sure find every type of Route 66 souvenir.

Specialty shops, catalog buying from big-city stores, and shopping malls put most general stores out of business. Today's monster-size super stores offer a lot of what made the general store special . . . except the story-swapping with neighbors.

More essays in Ted Landphair's Only in America series