Recently, I was wedged in a Costco checkout line in the midst of a multitude of grocery carts all jammed full of groceries and merchandise. As I slowly moved forward, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I reflected back to our shopping experience when I was ‘a kid’. The only thing the old fashioned general store shopping experience and the Costco experience had in common was both had hardware and food for sale under one single roof.
Growing up at a time when there wasn’t a great deal of extra cash available to most rural families, shopping was based very strictly on ‘need’, not ‘want’. We lived on a mixed farm so there was always a plentiful supply of food for the family…and anyone else who happened to stop in at meal time.
The farm provided the kitchen table with a regular supply of meat; mostly beef, pork and chicken but also, lamb, turkey, ducks and geese. There was no shortage of dairy products such as milk, thick cream, homemade butter, and cottage cheese. Huge loaves of bread, cinnamon buns, cakes, pies, deep fried donouts, buns and specially prepared ethnic food such as borscht (beet soup), perogies (dumplings with a potato, cottage cheese filling) and holubtsi (sour cabbage rolls) were commonplace. The huge garden (very huge when it required weeding) provided an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit and berries throughout the summer and fall. Excess fruit and vegetables were canned or stored in a cold room for use by the family until the next growing season. The surplus was sold to buy staples and farm supplies.
So, grocery shopping was limited to rare visits to the local town about 14 miles away (21 km).
The grocery store I remember most was located on the east side of the street about halfway down the block. The sign on the front read the Melnychuk General Store and was owned and operated by Ralph and Joe Melnychuk. The store was a ‘one stop’ shopping destination.
We had an account with the store which meant groceries and goods were selected, a record was kept and the bill was paid for at the end of the month or in some cases when farm products (vegetables and fruit, eggs, cream, grain, livestock, poultry) were sold. We would arrive at the store and my mother would hand over a carefully prepared written list of ‘needed’ items such as salt, sugar, flour, can of tobacco and cigarette papers, matches, coal oil, soap, canning jars, sewing supplies, gloves, socks and clothing. The entire small space was chock-full with shelves loaded with merchandise from the wood floor to the ceiling. The groceries were professionally packaged in brown paper that was secured by string pulled down from a large roll suspended from the ceiling.
I was just a little kid and Joe Melnychuk was a man who would joke with me and kid me. I remember Joe as a kind, nice man. As I reflect back, I realize that both of us looked forward to our visits. For my part, if the store was not busy, Joe and I would take a walk to a café a few doors south for an ice cream cone, compliments of Joe. Upon arrival at the store, I quickly checked the number of customers and always hoped other customers would not arrive as that would require Joe to serve them and prevent our trip to the café.
I won’t ever know if Joe was entertained by the cute, funny things little kids say or if he relished the look of extreme happiness shown in my eyes when handed an ice cream cone. Regardless, I am grateful for the special treat.
Many years have passed since the last ice cream cone and I had lost track of Joe. I later learned he had married May Arnold and lived in Wetaskiwin at the time of his passing. His widow continues to reside in Wetaskiwin.