The corner store: A neighbourhood institution

By Ian McKechnie

Ross Fisher Sr. at the counter of Fisher's Grocery Store in January of 1956. Photo courtesy of Wally Nugent.
Ross Fisher Sr. at the counter of Fisher's Grocery Store in January of 1956. Photo courtesy of Wally Nugent.

It’s a mild February afternoon 50 or 60 years ago. You are nine or 10 years old and are making your way home from school after a long day. The ground is grey with slush but still you pick up the pace as you make your way towards the little shop a block or so away from your family’s house — remember, you want to get there before it gets too busy!

Reaching the store, you kick the accumulated snow and slush from your boots on the chipped concrete steps outside and open the front door, its oil-starved hinges loudly announcing your arrival. Inside, you fumble in your coat pocket for a nickel or two … or three. The kindly storekeeper glances over the counter. He — or she, as is often the case — not only knows your name, but also knows exactly what you are looking for. After all, you were here only a day or two ago. The storekeeper retrieves a brown paper bag barely large enough to fit your hand in and proceeds to fill it with penny candy: caramels, cinnamon hearts, jujubes, licorice, red berries … the list is quite long.

Of course, it’s not just sweets that this store carries. Bread, milk, “delicious and refreshing Coca-Cola,” tins of tobacco — all could be found in the small, independently-owned corner stores which predated the emergence of chains like Becker’s and Mac’s.

These stores became institutions in their own right and made their way into popular folklore. A generation of children grew up with Mr. Hooper, the genial proprietor of the store on Sesame Street. Canadian entertainer Raffi Cavoukian serenaded another generation with his lyric about “the corner grocery store.” And who can forget that Charlie Bucket, the hero in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, found the prized Golden Ticket in “a newspaper and stationery shop, the kind that sells almost everything, including sweets and cigars?”

Anyone who has lived in this area long enough can rhyme off a long list of corner stores that once dotted almost every neighbourhood in the town of Lindsay. Families living at the east end of Bond Street might frequent the D&M store at the intersection of Bond and William, while others might patronize Langridge’s store at the southwest corner of Colborne and Adelaide Street, complete with its British Petroleum gasoline pumps. Bigham’s store, on Queen Street, was a destination for those who grew up in the East Ward during the 1970s and 1980s.

For young children living east of Lindsay Street, nothing could beat a trip to Doherty’s store, at the corner of Simcoe and Ridout Streets. “We went just about every day,” recalls retired firefighter Mike Hannon. May Doherty ran a well-stocked business, says Hannon — even though the store was among the smallest in town. As children, Hannon and his friends would collect discarded glass pop bottles, take them to Doherty, and get two cents a bottle — which might then be spent on candy. “She was a very patient lady,” Hannon observes. “We all liked her.”

Ada Fisher and her late husband, Ross Fisher Sr., oversaw a popular store at the corner of Durham and Albert streets — current home of The Little Schnitzel House restaurant. Now in her early 90s, Ada remembers that they purchased the store from a Mr. Pitts around 1954 and ran it for about a decade. Fairly young at the time, Ada and Ross were kept busy from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, six days a week. In addition to the usual array of grocery items, the Fishers sold fresh doughnuts and ice cream from Silverwood’s Dairy. “The milkman from Silverwood’s would buy bubble gum for his horse from us,” Ada recalls.

July 1, 1975, saw the O’Neill family take over operations at the former Fisher store. Florence O’Neill, who presided behind the counter for nearly nine years, reminds us that the storekeeper’s role went far beyond being a merchant. Florence welcomed people — often students from nearby Sir Sanford Fleming College — to the neighbourhood and ensured that they were made to feel at home. Customers often took storekeepers into their confidence.

“Some of the kids [who came to the store] were from troubled families, and we were the ones they talked to,” Florence observes. “You got to know the kids, and you really cared about them.”

People who could not afford to pay for their groceries on the spot could put them on credit until payday came around, a policy that was also observed by Doherty and the Fishers. “It was all done on the honour system, and you never had to ask people for money,” says Florence. “They were neighbours, and it was a different time.”

When the O’Neills closed up shop for the last time in the spring of 1984, loyal customers, many of them children, presented them with a big cake and stayed until the door was locked for good. “They were an amazing group of kids,” says Florence. “They gave us the best memories.”

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