In 1964 when we Sedgwicks arrived in Queensborough in Dad’s 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air, the little hamlet had two general stores. They were Bobbie’s and McMurray’s, and they were across the road from each other in the centre of town. (Okay, “town” in quotation marks.) Or one could more accurately say they were “down’t street,” because that’s what everybody did say. It meant the two stores (which constituted Queensborough’s downtown) were anywhere from a couple of doors to a few hundred yards to maybe a quarter of a mile away from wherever you happened to be in the Greater Queensborough Area.
In my nighttime dreams I am often back in one or the other of those two stores. It is the present day, but they are still operating, offering the tiny community a place to buy useful things like bread and milk without a person having to drive 20 minutes in one direction to Madoc or a little farther in another direction to Tweed.
Alas, that’s only in my dreams. McMurray’s closed while we still lived there, so sometime before 1975; Bobbie’s stayed open for a fair number of years afterward, but in the end the proprietress, an extraordinary woman named Bobbie Ramsay (née Sager), the unofficial – or actually, kind of official – “mayor” of Queensborough, took a well-earned retirement and shuttered it, too. There is much more to be said about Bobbie, and I will; sometime, if y’all are lucky, I’ll recount the story of her elopement at what I’d guess would be the age of 45 or 50.
Both Bobbie’s and McMurray’s were classic general stores, offering everything under the sun. Canned goods. Milk and butter and eggs. Cereal and other packaged foods. Cigarettes and cheap cigars. Work clothes. Rubber boots and work boots. Ice-cream cones and ice-cream bars and ice-cream sodas. Books and stationery. A few fresh fruits and vegetables, but as I recall they were always pretty wilty and the bananas were brown. I think there were meats, but I don’t recall the details. The soft-drink cooler (one of those monster floor affairs filled with refrigerated water; you lifted the lid on one side or the other and pulled out your glass bottle of “pop,” which you then proceeded to open on the built-in bottle-opener) was almost the centrepiece of each place, and highly popular.
Yes, there were meats. I’ve just remembered Bobbie wrapping a roast or something in butcher’s reddish-pink paper, tying it up with string that she pulled down from an immense spool that was attached somewhere overhead. A good contraption, that.
And I remember her toting up the price of the groceries without benefit of an adding machine of any sort, writing the prices down and doing the calculations with a pencil on the top of the Special K box.
For us kids, the lure of both stores was the candy counter. I remember very fondly the penny gumball machine at Bobbie’s, and the five-cent packages of sponge toffee, and the rows of chocolate bars and Life Savers. But really, for candy McMurray’s was the place to go. They (Clayt and Blanche McMurray) had the most gorgeous old candy counters, wooden but with glass fronts and glass tops, so little kids could peer in at all the sweet awesomeness inside. They had a lot of two-for-a-penny candies: wintergreens and blackballs and so on; you could get a nice full little paper bag for a nickel or a dime. And candy necklaces! And licorish (which my Toronto-bred mother always insisted we call licorISS).
But the very best thing about Bobbie’s and McMurray’s was that they were the gathering places for the whole area. If I remember right, Bobbie’s at one point was open late (till 9 p.m.? 10?) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and it’s quite possible that McMurray’s did the same on the other days. (Needless to say, neither was open on Sunday. Who ever heard of such a thing?) But what happened at night when the store was open wasn’t much in the way of grocery-buying; it was community-gathering. There were two long benches in the middle of Bobbie’s store (and I’m sure there must have been benches at McMurray’s too, though I can’t quite picture where they were), and on them of an evening would gather the couples and the singles of the community to shoot the breeze, trade the gossip, smoke (if they were men), and watch and comment on any little kid (like yours truly) who might venture in to fetch a quart of milk or buy a pack of gum. Oh man, it was walking the gantlet going through those two benchloads full of regulars to get to the counter and buy something from Bobbie, who presided over the whole scene. It was terrifying! Not that the benchfolk were saying nasty things or anything; I’m sure it was quite the opposite. But they were the denizens, the regulars, and anyone who ventured in was fair game for comment.
There was always a stove burning, throwing off lots of heat. And people gathered. And a place to buy what you needed at all hours.
The ultimate community centre.
In my daytime dreams, one or the other (both is probably too much ever to hope for) of the two old general-store buildings has at least a little partial section open, where coffee from thermoses of Tim Horton’s (fetched from Madoc or Tweed), and newspapers, and bread and milk and eggs, and locally grown vegetables, and (wonder of wonders) some bottles of red and white wine from nearby Prince Edward County, and maybe beer from Church Key Brewing in not-far-away Petherick’s Corners – all are available for sale, and with them, for free, the latest news from whoever’s gathered around about the goings-on in the community.
A return to the good old days of very local commerce and community, in other words.