When Gray's General Store in Adamsville, R.I., closed its doors July 28, it was the death of a 224-year-old institution and the end of an era.
Opened in 1788 — the same year the steamboat was patented and Georgia achieved statehood — it was regarded as the longest continuously run general store in the country. Call me a sentimental sap, but I cried when I read about it.
The general store, supplier of all the essentials for living, enjoyed its glory days from approximately 1870 to 1930. After that, supermarkets began to spring up and undercut the pricing structure of small, family-run operations.
Just entering a general store was a feast for the senses, especially your nose. With leather goods, kerosene, coffee, tobacco, cheese and spices crammed into every nook and cranny, the fabulous aroma would be hard to duplicate today.
General-store collectibles consist of anything a shopper would have seen inside the small establishment. Desirable antiques fall into the following categories: store fixtures, tins, wooden and other types of containers, medicines, personal needs, advertising, tobacciana and Christmas-related items.
The most valuable among these are wooden display cabinets for everything from thread to collars, wholesale-sized containers and other items made in smaller quantities, such as the impressive Enterprise coffee grinders or the shiny National cash registers. Either easily could bring $1,000. Colorfully lithographed Diamond Dyes cabinets — supplied to proprietors for buying a gross of dye packets — and rare, tin, advertising signs certainly get bidders' blood pumping.
With the right, old tin, you could raise some fast Christmas cash. A "Mayo's Cut Plug Tobacco" tin/lunchbox found a new home for nearly $100. A "Honey Bee Snuff" sign brought $180.
In the coffee line, I found a 112-year-old, 1-pound can of "White Bear" for $185. That's way more than a 24-ounce pumpkin latte at Human Bean. But a "Mi Lady Coffee" can topped that, fetching a whopping $482.77. For a coffee can, you ask? Yep. Keep in mind that these all were in good condition with attractive graphics.
For those of us simply satisfied with gawking at nice, old things, the most extensive, local collection I know is right here in Eagle Point.
Mayor Bob Russell and his wife, Debbie, own and operate the historical (1872) Butte Creek Mill. Most items on a general-store collector's wish list are on display in the antiques shop next door, inside the mill or on upper shelves of the adjacent store, which also yields a lungful of that satisfying, general-store aroma mentioned earlier.
General stores once were at the heart of new towns springing up across a fledgling nation. They reflected the personality of their owners, who knew their customers and tried to anticipate their every need. They provided a gathering place for goods and gossip, an occasional game of checkers or a place to stop and warm your mitts by the pot-bellied stove.
Even though we replaced the general store with the big-box variety, we still have the opportunity to become acquainted with our Rogue Valley neighbors and enjoy the varied charms their locally owned businesses have to offer.
Freelance writer Peggy Dover writes about antiques and the human stories behind them. She lives in Eagle Point. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.