Mercantile of Mercantiles

They say America was founded one outpost general store at time. The pioneer spirit drove settlers westward, and often, the only connection with civilization were the little “Everything Shops” out in the boondocks. Abe Lincoln figured out he’d learn about this country by working as a clerk in one. He found that the news “on wind” and “word of mouth” always made its way to an over the counter conversation in Mr. Offut’s store in New Salem, Illinois. Amongst the pickle barrels, rope and pitchforks, glad tidings mingled with idle gossip. The latest political and societal topics were debated amongst locals with the “out of towners”. Peddler, traveling salesman, settler: all brought their own colorful brand of noteworthy subjects. Indeed, these country stores bred the American spirit of adventure, inspired by tales adrift, aloft and captured over a cup of cider and conversation.

When one went to the general store it was in mind of bringing back specifics. Perhaps, some coal, coffee, an iron skillet, flour for baking, thread for sewing, seeds, bandages, quinine, whale oil, beeswax, wire, lantern, candles, French soap, feather bedding, shampoo, and, an indian rubber ball for the children, comprised the shopping list. As one packed one’s wagon, lively talk would ensue and perhaps a riddle, song or poem was shared. Then, a sarsaparilla to induce refreshment was in order, whilst picking up a post and reading its contents with clerk and fellow customers leaning on the counter, lending an ear. It would be the last visit until Spring for distanced folk, or the weekly mecca for those who lived close by. It was the supplier of chit chat, newspapers and books. Not everything bought was necessary. These stores had delights for the children as well: they sold candy and kaleidoscopes, jumpropes and tin soldiers, caps and sunbonnets, unicycles and velocipedes, even roller skates and ice-skates. For the precious littlest ones, there might be rattles and teething rings, eventually to be replaced with Porcelain dolls, wooden alphabet blocks and slates, all begotten from the American outpost general store.

In the 21st century, these stores not only have been swallowed up by two centuries of increasing urban sprawl, but the very size of these shops have expanded into what we call department stores and now superstores. The Wal-marts of today, owe their very existence to the humble beginnings of the general store. Despite the citified, modern world expanding commerce in spit-spot, quick-flash fashion, there are still some remnants of the homespun neighborliness to be found in some of the quieter-long-lasting general stores. Just such a store was still keeping its doors and heart open to its surrounding community of Glendora.

Bock’s Variety store had been frequented and truly loved by all, until the owner passed on and his son sold the business. Only less than a decade ago patrons could still walk into Bock’s and buy a last minute Father’s Day gift of Old Spice and Golf Balls or casually peruse McCall’s dress patterns. It was considered a magical oasis for anyone who could appreciate service with a smile and might overhear the next discussion about the mayor and his intentions. You heard what the Boy Scouts were doing, when the next Little League Pancake Breakfast fundraiser was, and what date in December the Town Hall Christmas Tree would be lit. If, one were lucky to have been a child of the 60s, then a trip downtown meant a step into this veritable treasure house ready at one’s disposal; shelf after shelf stocked with imagination inspiring products.

You stepped through two glass swinging open doors and were presented with numerous paralleling aisles neatly organized and thoughtfully planned display shelves. Under some of the shelves were cabinets. The cabinets held drawers full of more items for purchase. One such drawer stored the latest 45s, another drawer kept various kinds of stationary. You kind of knew what was in each but needed permission from the store clerks to open and inspect the contents. Up out of reach from curious, tiny hands was a locked glass cabinet displaying little international dolls – each in its own traditional dress. The list of purchasable goods was endless : Fenton-ware was on display in the storefront window, Big Ben alarm clocks, the sports section with mitts, bats, tennis rackets, croquet sets, the fabric & textiles department replete with corduroys and calicos, paisleys and plaids, the silk ribbons on spools, music boxes, stargazing constellations dial cards, pocket binoculars, the children’s books in the back of the store display shelf, the chemistry sets and telescopes, wooden Brio building sets, the paint by number and various card sets, Etch-a Sketch, Erector sets, Fisher-Price Circus set, jacks and marble sets, 1,000 word puzzles, Silly Puddy, hair brushes and hand mirrors, even harmonicas and castanettes! Bocks always had an ever friendly, helpful staff, the long candy aisle to occupy you while you waited in the register line with friends or siblings, Bazooka guns and Davy Crockett rifles, card sets, Chinese checkers, Ouigi Board games, paper doll booklets, plastic horses, cowboy hats, firefighter hats, doctor role-play sets and costumes,  lava lamps and hula hoops, view master slide viewers, macrame kits and knitting skeins, crochet kits and needles. You might spy Timex watches, Red Flyer Wagons, Mr. Wiggles & Slip n Slides, Slinkies, 1,000 piece puzzles, paint by number sets, art chalk, poster boards, sketch pads, colored pencils, rubber cement, sequins, glitter, Rick a rack, flashlights, cedar keepsake/ jewelry boxes, candles and pine incense to burn inside miniature wooden log cabins, kites, snow globes, leather belts, shoe polish, ties and bandannas… these were all part of the merchandise sold in this creaky wooden floored, shelved ground to ceiling, richly stocked,  mercantile of all mercantiles…the heart of town.

But a mercantile can’t exist without its merchant. If the store had heart, it was because Mr. Bock was the heartbeat behind the operation. Every youngster in Glendora knew him. And HE knew all the kids’ names. He even could associate you with your family and say, “Oh, you must be So and So’s brother”… Mr. Bock had come home from the war missing an arm. But he carried a smile all his days. He listened to the chatter of children and provided merchandise to tantalize. I remember being charmed by mood rings, and torsion pendulum clocks. I introduced my baby brother to a Lionel Train Set as it was set up and working in action on a low table up near the front window ready to snatch the glances of wide-eyed faces. He would hear us talking and the next thing you knew, he was now selling them. His store was his world. A world he shared with everyone. A world of wonder. Yes, the mercantile beyond all other mercantiles…Bocks Variety Store.

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