First Person: My general store
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Something disturbing happened here in Pittsburgh at my local general store.
You know the place. You probably have one in your neighborhood or on your way home from work. It's the Walgreens/CVS/Rite Aid where you stop in to pick up just one thing and before you know it you've found socks and car wax and tennis balls.
General stores have always been crammed full of products to serve a particular demographic, depending on their location. Gold miners needed boots and pans and coffee. Farmers' wives needed gingham and sugar and molasses.
And in the old days when people lived farther from town and each other, everybody needed a little human interaction to go along with their dry goods. They could huddle near a pot-bellied stove or partake of a briny pickle from a barrel while catching up on births and deaths and weddings or the weather and insect pests and crop fungus. The really lucky folks retrieved newsy, handwritten letters.
Now the post office handles that occasional letter, and most people utilize electronic versions of human interaction anyway. So the general store has evolved to serve a new demographic: anybody and everybody.
My on-the-way-home-from-work store is stocked with greeting cards, dog food, hair dye and breath mints; photo reprints right away, prescriptions pre-paid and Penguins/Pirates/Steelers paraphernalia in sizes infant to XXL. Depending on the season, the front of the store swells with necessities like marshmallow chicks, shamrock headwear, fruit cakes or swim fins.
I travel a lot, so I've visited lots of general stores, from Miami to Austin to Boise to San Francisco. At one particular store in San Francisco's Union Square, I walk a gauntlet of street people in order to enter a stocked-to-the-gills Walgreens. That store, tightly populated with tourists, locals and panhandlers, holds pretty much anything I might have forgotten to pack. But because of potential pilfering by all of that humanity, about half of the merchandise is locked behind tiny bars to keep it safe. If I want to buy toothpaste, I have to find a clerk to set it free.
That's happening now at my go-to general store. Prilosec has become a prisoner. I press the button near its jail cell, and the manager shows up with his ring of keys. He didn't want to do it, he explains. It's a pain for him, too. But he discovered a lot of seemingly intact but actually empty boxes of Prilosec on the shelf, so he didn't have a choice.
I've tried to figure out why this incident disturbed me so much. First of all, was it desperation or a double dare that drove a person to work so meticulously to steal over-the-counter stomach acid pills and then place the box back on the shelf completely unscathed? There's got to be a skilled job for that person, one that doesn't involve stealing.
Could it be that I'm just a little ticked off that my time will now be wasted because of some slime ball's idea of a practical joke or just plain greed?
Or is it that the neighborhood where my general store resides is experiencing growing pains, and I'm not sure I like that. I now put up with the occasional intoxicated panhandler at the front door and the creepy guy skulking in the personal care aisle because I like the convenience of being able to gather sandwich bags and envelopes and nose spray while my prescriptions are being filled. I want all of the amenities of a city, but I also want Pittsburgh to remain a big small town.
What am I afraid of? Pittsburgh will always be a big small town if just a little bit bigger. And with that comes an increase in traffic, both auto and human. But growth is good. I love some of the new farm-to-table restaurants. Bring on the green housing and locally owned and even big-box retail shops. I welcome you with open wallet.
So it turns out that the answer to my dilemma is No. 2. I'm just shallow and impatient. From now on, I will schedule a little bit more of my day to buy all of that stuff I need from my newly citified general store.
First Published August 14, 2010 12:00 am