A taste of yesterdayby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
In the early days of Minnesota, the general store was where people shopped and socialized. The general store is mostly a memory now, replaced by supermarkets and big box retailers. But in one small Minnesota town, there's a general store that's been run by the same family for 100 years.
Middle River, Minn. — Walking through the door of Young's General Store is like taking a step back in time.
The wood floor creaks as you amble down narrow aisles, between shelves crammed with everything from plumbing supplies to pastry crimpers.
"We don't have a computer in the store. Everything is still all old school, doing it the long-hand way," said Steve Holm as he stands behind the wood counter, surrounded by large refrigerators.
Holm, a former school teacher, came to help his father-in-law run the store one summer 29 years ago and never left.
He's married to Bobbi, who grew up in this store. Her father Howard Young took over the place from his father in the 1940s. Back then, the general store was the heart and soul of a small town.
Flour was ordered by the traincar load, a vintage example of buying in bulk. Bobbi Holm remembers the wooden pickle barrel next to the counter where people would fill their pickle jars.
She also went on buying trips with her dad. When small stores dotted the countryside, there were no delivery trucks. When supplies ran low, the owner would travel to large warehouses and stock up.
"You would grab a cart and you could pick items, one of this and one of that," recalled Bobbi Holm. "Dad usually gave us the toys to pick out. And then he'd frown when he'd see it heaped."
She says it's getting harder to stock the myriad of items the general store carries, because many suppliers don't want to sell only a few items at a time.
Over the years the store has grown to more than double its original size. The clothing and notions department is in what was once the Middle River Post Office next door. The space between the two buildings became the shoe department. People still drive miles to buy their shoes at Young's General Store.
Credit and customer relationships were a staple of the old general store, and Young's still keeps a tab for many customers. Steve Holm says his father-in-law Howard Young would extend credit on a handshake.
"A lot of the farmers would go a year at a time. They would come in in the fall and pay their bill," said Steve Holm. "We've had a lot of them come in and say if it wasn't for Howard, the family would have gone hungry."
There's no longer much bartering at the general store, but in days past Young's General Store often played the role of middleman for farmers short on cash.
"People would bring in cordwood and stack it up here, and exchange for groceries," said Steve Holm. "And they would haul that wood 70 miles to Grand Forks and sell it, in trucks with no heaters in the middle of the winter. They worked hard in those days, making it whatever way they could."
The work may not be as hard now, but the hours are long. Steve Holm says the store hasn't been closed a single day in the 29 years he's worked there. They've stayed open through blizzards and power outages.
The store still stays open late on Saturdays. That's a nod to tradition. Saturday was the day many farmers made the trip to town to socialize and stock up.
The general store is still doing a good business. Hunters provide a boost in the fall, and many locals still stop almost every day. But a new Wal-Mart 30 miles away is taking some customers.
Several Young family members still help out at the store, but Steve Holm doubts there will be a fourth generation of the Young family to take over the old store.
"I think the future might be running out," said Holm. "We've got three children, two daughters that are off on their own careers, and a son who's a junior in high school, and I don't think this is in his future."
Still, he thinks someone will be there to take over the store. After all, he says, every small town needs a good general store.
- Morning Edition, 05/15/2008, 7:45 a.m.