Beanery Online Literary Magazine

January 2, 2013

Barrel Molasses and Shotgun Shells



Joe F. Stierheim

     Many years ago I made regular trips to northern Pennsylvania. Along my route was a small store that had a sign along the highway that advertised: “Barrel Molasses and Shotgun Shells.” That sign always fascinated me. The store appeared to be a “Mom and Pop” sort of place, catering to members of the local populace and stocking what was needed and wanted by them. I have not traveled that section of what was then a two-lane road for quite some time. I am pretty sure that the country there has changed, the highway no longer a two-lane road and no longer lined by farmland, villages, and the occasional business. The store with its unique sign is probably no longer there, long ago having been replaced or at least forced out of business by a supermarket or other chain retail establishment. The local people, I am sure, buy their shotgun shells at Gander Mountain or Walmart and haven’t the slightest interest in finding an establishment at which to purchase barrel molasses.

In the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up in the 1930s and 40s, there were a few unique businesses. One was an old general store that looked exactly as a general store should. It was a big frame building with large windows lining a porch that ran its width. In the windows were samples of the store’s wares: clothing, tools, feed and farming supplies, building materials—just about everything needed by the local rural population. Inside, a balcony ran around the entire rectangular space and on it I remember there being, among other things, shelves of yard goods and tables for displaying and vending them. The store wasn’t aware of good merchandising practice. The milk and bread, the most sought-after items, were positioned at the front of the store. Convenience for the customer was thought to be more important than inducement of sales. A large, pot belly stove sat in the center of the store and it was there that I waited with other kids on cold winter mornings for the bus that took us to school and, when I had the money, purchased a small, paper-wrapped pie to put in my lunch box.

Another business in the town was operated by a man who possessed a number of talents and abilities. He did auto maintenance, pumped gasoline, repaired harness and leather goods, gave haircuts and stocked everything the general store didn’t handle and some it did. He sold guns and ammunition, hunting clothes and supplies, sporting goods, some work clothes, a selection of tools and the ever popular candy and gum.

Unique places still exist but are becoming increasingly hard to find. This trend has been going on for a long time. John Steinbeck wrote a book, Travels with Charley, about his journey across the US in the 1950s with his dog. In it he noted that it was possible to travel across the entire country without having to vary one’s diet even for a day. Even at that time the homogenization of the country had begun. It is more pronounced now, it being possible to travel the country and not only vary your diet but also not vary the look of the place in which the food is served. Chains that blanket the country make this possible. And from their professional bailiwicks they produce their homogenized advertising.

The American ingenuity of which we are so fond has made all this possible. We have succeeded in bringing a uniform sameness to our country and are now in the process of exporting it to the rest of the world. It’s good for the economy, but something of American ingenuity has been lost as well. I would like to think that somewhere in the country there is someone who favors and actually puts into practice something of his own that is unique and singular; that it is still possible and acceptable to post a simple, uncomplicated, honest and yet unique statement of business that satisfies a want and a need and proclaims something such as “Barrel Molasses and Shotgun Shells.”


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