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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Living Above the Store: Immersed in Community and Sustainable

My grandmother's store

Over the years I replay in my mind's eye my grandmother's store in Mississippi, refreshing the memory of exactly where items were located in her home and store, how large the store really was, what I smelled, what I liked to eat from her store, and how I loved being there where she lived and worked. It just seemed right. Was it a move brought on by thrifty habits? Did she live there because she had to? I don't know. The decision was made over sixty-years ago, and there is no one left to ask.

I suspect that the decision was made so Memaw would have income, not have rent to pay, and would need no transportation to work. All these elements and maybe more probably played into her decision. I know my cousin could walk to school.

Business model and candy source

This was and is a good business model. Besides, she had candy. It was not like my mother ever allowed us to have much. But, the very fact it existed and I did not have to pay for it kept hope alive in my heart that someday I could have candy, more candy I hoped. For a child who rarely got candy or Coke, a ninety-mile to drive to a grandmother's house who had CANDY, so much candy...such a thrill.

Nellie Olsen?
Given half a chance, could I have been Nellie Olsen?

Do you remember coal oil?
In front of Memaw's store there were the remnants of a gas station. the pumps were gone, but the coal oil pump close to the store remained. Coal oil is kerosene. The nearby residents used it for their lamps. They would bring a canning jar, usually a pint, to have it filled. We liked to play out front but rarely were allowed to do so. Very few cars, if any, ever drove up. My grandmother did not own a car.

Candy case

Inside, the store had shelves around the room and several in the center. On one side of the store was the candy counter. Candy was inside the huge oak, glass, fronted case. Candy could only be accessed from the two huge sliding glass doors. NO ONE except my grandmother opened the doors. If a person wanted candy, Memaw got it out and put it in a  and carried it to the register. I suppose that would thwart any little candy thieves.

Tiny bags for penny candy!

The bag was 5 3/4 x 3 1/2 x 2 inches. Ten cents worth of candy would last the 90 mile drive to Memphis.

Brown Penny Candy Bags 1lb 500ct

No grocery carts

People came to the store and brought a list, an order,  which my grandmother filled by walking around the store and gathering items.

I forgot the ice cream! Memaw kept a metal scoop in a glass of water. She sold the scoops in cones. Mama put a stop to ice cream begging. She did not want the four of us eating the profits. Every night when she closed the store, she took the glass of water and scoop into her kitchen to wash it.

Pencils and hairpins

Behind the counter were pencils, WriteRight notebooks, sewing thread, needles, hairpins, and the like. A cash register with the arm to pull was a prominent fixture on the counter. To one side was an oak refrigerator. I don't know what she sold from there except ice cream. But, some of her food was in it, food she consumed. No one except her touched anything in the store. Customers stood and waited for her assistance.

Living behind the store

She didn't really live over the store. She lived behind it. The living quarters were just an extension of the one-story building. But, I was watching Little House on the Prairie and thought of Memaw's store since the Olsen's store is upstairs over their mercantile.

In my mind's eye I can see Memaw's living area--living room, bedroom behind the living room, and a long room the size of both these rooms to one side.

Frightening claw foot tub

Oh, yeah, there were two steps up to the bathroom where the claw foot tub terrified me. Oh my goodness, what could be lurking in the recesses beneath the tub and those horrendous claws of cast iron? The lighting in that bathroom did not illuminate much. Needless to say, I spent no time dawdling in the bathroom when I had to pee. It was so terrifiying that I might have just held the other until we went home.

Isn't stream of consciousness horrible? So, here I am.

Martin Melaver Living Above the Store

In movies I remember often gritty living conditions suffered by those families who lived above stores. When I tried to Google "living above the store" to see if I could find some of these movies to include in this post, I found a fascinating man, Martin Melaver who wrote a book, Living Above the Store. The book review is fascinating, a look at sustainable living.

Later, I found an article, The Benefit of Living Above the Store, published in the New York Times. The story of revitalization is a lesson we need to learn. Family involvement builds community and softens the edges of business districts.

Many metropolitan areas are building lofts and renting or selling them. Not only does the revenue help the economy of the downtowns, a human element is infused into the usually lifeless weekends. Restaurants and other businesses spring up and thrive. Right in my own town of 14,000 people lofts have been created by business owners for their own quarters.

Modern Day Choice

One young man built an apartment over his family store when he decided to marry. He and his wife and two young sons live there still. Theirs is not a story of having to live there. They invested a great deal to make the quarters comfortable and appointed the interior with high quality furnishings.

Many of the two-story buildings in town held living quarters for the owners of the businesses. Of course, as the owners prospered and the next generation took over, living above the store came to be seen as a sign of poverty or an unneeded economy of spirit, if not the pocketbook.

Back of Memaw's Store

Memaw had lots of room. In the living room was a piano, rolltop desk, large sofa, a comfortable rocker, other chairs and tables. Best of all was the sofa that made into a bed.

Behind the living room was her bedroom. All I really remember was a double bed, massive with four huge posters and a dresser with the tall center mirror, recessed top and the sets of drawers down each side. There was other furniture, I just cannot recall it. Well, there were two nightstands and dressers. But, I cannot "see" them.

Alongside the living room and bedroom was a long room that was quite large. It held a table that comfortable held eight chairs. At one end of the room was other furniture that I cannot remember. Along one wall was a cot-like sleeping accommodation--not a bed, not a cot. My brother and sister slept there as toddlers. At the other end of the room was a kitchen area. At that far end was a huge double sink, freestanding with a curtain underneath. right to the left of the sink was the door to the bathroom.

These memories come from ages four to ten, 1950 to 1956. I try to remember often to hold the memories.

Attached to her store was a garage. In the day we could hear the men working. Thankfully, they left in the evening and weekends. In the wall between the garage and her kitchen was a recess that could be accessed by the garage and by her. The telephone lived there in the wall with a little door she could lock. The door and recess were no larger than a cubic foot.

Was her life a gritty, hardscrabble existence that I seem to remember from movies of families living above the store? I don't know because that is just the way it was. But, I doubt it. She knew all the people who came to her to shop. The part of town where she lived had only these two businesses, the ones housed in the building in which she lived. The streets were paved, had sidewalks, and people living all around. It was a short walk to the public swimming pool and close to the library.

Her home and store creaked with every step, and I love the sound of creaky, old houses now. Actually, I live in a house with just enough creaks. Best of all, its no longer terrifying.

Memaw's living quarters were a dozen feet off the ground, balanced crazily on stilts, Really, it looked rickety to me. The whole thing was built on a steep hill that fell away from the house in a frightenly steep manner. We played out back. I remember thinking the house was twice as far off the ground as my father was tall. The back steps seemed dangerous, but I am afraid of heights. So, maybe you cannot trust that memory.

My cousin lived with my grandmother. She was friends with the people where her/our grandmother worked. Oh, the hill out back led to a hollow full of people--Black. My grandmother saw no shame in this arrangement. As a sign of the times, I must say the white people lived on high ground. As a child I never heard a racist remark from her. She was polite to everyone with no undercurrent of disdain.

My uncle owned the store, stocking it, and often cleaning the floors. By living behind the store, my grandmother was able to support herself tending the store.

Immersion in the community

Martin Malvern described living above the store as immersion in the community. Should we do the same?

For me too

At least twenty years ago, I desired to "live above the store." I custom made patterns for people. I needed to have a place other than my bathroom for people to change. I needed a sewing room and a fitting room. My house was large enough for the simple conversion I needed--a powder room. Essentially, it would be a commode and sink in a closet in the hall.

I have this thing about people for whom I am working with going all over my house. Cleaning house before a client would come over is not my idea of convenience. After all, Memaw and the Olsens did not open their home/living quarters to the public. I suppose I want a "store" in the house.

The consequence of stream of consciousness memories and a little googling left me with a disjointed post!

Was my grandmother practicing sustainable living? Did her presence and my cousin's presence help to create community? Was she immersed in community? Do you live above the store?

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