Everybody Has a Story: Mom-and-pop store taught lifelong lessons

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Before there were supermarkets and convenience stores, there were mom-and-pop stores. I'd like to tell you about one in Butte, Mont., that was special to me. It was a small grocery store with a house behind it like a snail's shell. All the best parts of my childhood, including its beginning, happened there.

My grandparents, Harry and Jessie Funston, had lived in Midland, S.D., with their son, Clair, and daughter, Verl Leah (who became my mother). My grandfather owned and operated a drayage business, transporting merchandise from the railroad station to stores and businesses in Midland, at first by horse and wagon and later by truck. But in the early 1930s, goods began to arrive by large trucks that delivered them directly to the stores, thus effectively putting the dray line out of business. This was in the depth of the Great Depression, when jobs and business opportunities were scarce.

So in the summer of 1935, my grandparents had an auction, selling everything they had that wouldn't fit in their car and little homemade trailer. My grandparents and my mother, then 16, headed west.

They stopped overnight in Butte. My grandmother drank a glass of water and declared that Butte water was the best she had ever tasted. She decided on the spot that the family should settle in Butte.

They decided to use the proceeds of their auction to buy the Lake Market, a small store with a house attached. Mother went to Butte High, and with friends she swam across Lake Avoca, which was later drained to become the Country Club Golf Course. Mother went on to Butte Business College and soon got a job at the Texas Company Regional Office in Butte. There she met my father, Russell Smith, and married him. Before long, I was on the way.

My grandmother's sister, a nurse, had told stories of babies getting mixed up in hospitals, so she insisted Mother give birth at home. "We want to make sure we get our baby!" she said. I was born in my grandparents' bed in the house behind the Lake Market. The store was open, of course, so my grandfather had to keep running in to wait on customers whenever the bell rang. Nothing stood in the way of customer service!

Early the next morning, the bread delivery man came with the week's supply of bread for the store. He was allowed to hold me for a few minutes. Forever afterward, he considered us to be family. When I got a little older, he used to bring me maple bars and other goodies on his delivery stops, just to let me know I was special to him.

We lived in uptown Butte, but I could hop on the bus after school just about any time I wanted, for 25 cents, and go out to the store. That was where I felt most at home. My grandfather had agreed not to smoke his cigars in the house, so he spent a fair amount of time between customers just relaxing and smoking in the store. I loved nothing more than to join him there, companionably talking and maybe eating a Fudgesicle from the freezer.

Often, when he was on his way to the wholesale house or the produce market, my grandfather would pick me up at home and take me with him. I can remember sitting on the counters in these businesses while he paid for his purchases. Someone there usually managed to find a little treat for me.

As soon as I could see over the counter, maybe 4 or 5 years old, my grandfather started teaching me how to count out change to customers. Soon I was waiting on people by myself, though he or my grandmother was always within earshot. When we were all in the house and the store bell would ring, I would jump up and say, "I'll get it!" I was so proud when I was allowed to go into the store and help the customers by myself.

The Lake Market became my school for business and customer service. My grandfather taught me to greet customers with a smile and to get them whatever they asked for. (No self-service then!) I was always to count out the change, to make sure there were no mistakes. I sliced bologna, wrapped it in butcher paper and tied it with a string. I weighed bananas and calculated the cost (I remember they were 20 cents a pound — a luxury item at that time).

At the end of every month, after 8 p.m. when we closed the store, my grandfather would tear off a piece of butcher paper and lay it on the kitchen table. Then he would count the money in the till and add up all the bills he had paid. Income minus expenses gave us the profit for the month. Many neighbors ran a tab all month, and if even one failed to pay, it could wipe out the narrow profit margin for the Lake Market. Afterwards, he'd pop a batch of popcorn and we'd relax together.

I went to college and taught school for a few years. Later, I became the office manager and bookkeeper for the Piano Hospital in Vancouver, where I discovered that the simple bookkeeping I had learned at the kitchen table, and the people skills I learned at the counter, were all I really needed to know. I had studied at the school of The Lake Market.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don't have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.