- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

CROGHAN, N.Y.

This general store finally sold its last corset last year, to a young girl who thought it looked pretty cool. Still on the shelves of E.M. Marilley and Co. are odd pieces of a “Made in the USA” past: Flash cubes, dress shields, and rubber boots from a B.F. Goodrich footwear division that hasn’t been around since the 1970s.

Don’t let the vintage fool you. All are stubbornly brand-new. The store’s philosophy is: It stays until it sells. So help yourself to the plastic-wrapped turtlenecks from a proud sponsor of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Or the 95 percent polyester flare-leg jeans.

But move fast. After 132 years, what’s been called the North Country’s last real general store is up for sale. (Real, as in not yet offering gourmet coffee, as the general store in neighboring New Bremen now proclaims.)

Outside on the front porch sits owner Jim Marilley, turning his head to watch each truck boom by. This village of about 600 is a blink on busy Main Street, the road toward the Canadian border.

His store once played the role of a rural Wal-Mart between cow farms and the Adirondacks’ western edge: Long hours (even until midnight), convenient location, two creaking wooden floors of goods. “If We don’t Have it, You don’t Need it!” the sign says.

Mr. Marilley’s grandfather opened the store in 1874. The grandson’s 81 now and slowed by some recent minor strokes. The children don’t want the place, so he plans to sell it all in one go.

“The whole shebang,” he says. And if the last lingering corset was any clue, he seems quite willing to wait.

No one knows how many general stores are left in America. Some went touristy. Most have closed. Census figures from 2003 show 1,623 of the smallest general-merchandise stores, but the number gives no hint of age or character.

“The one thing they’re losing, of course, is a sense of place,” says Ray Oldenburg, a retired professor in Florida who wrote “The Great Good Place,” which warned of America’s disappearing community hangouts. “You can’t get that back.”

But people in Croghan don’t need experts to tell them.

“You can take and put a bank in there; it could be a completely viable business, but you’ve just lost part of the character of the town,” says Mayor Glen Gagnier, who calls a stroll through the store a walk through history.

“You sellin’ oil or giving it away?” Mr. Marilley calls to Ronnie Vogt, of Copenhagen, who just pulled up in a tanker truck. Mr. Vogt’s been making deliveries for about 15 years. He’s still impressed by the 1937 oil invoice Mr. Marilley has, somewhere.

Inside, Mr. Vogt gets to talking with Maria Largett, who joined the store 26 years ago as a high-school student. Her grandmother worked for Mr. Marilley’s mother.

Miss Largett reaches behind the counter for the store’s oldest item — a heavy, rusted horseshoe.

“We’ve got a couple barrels outside,” she says, and Mr. Vogt starts laughing. “I’ve never sold one,” she adds, but who knows? Maybe the nearby community of Amish will want them someday.

Marilley’s was always a place for staple goods — wagon wheels, flour and sugar in 100-pound bags. Now there’s more outdoor gear, flannel shirts and Thinsulate logging pants. Business finally slowed in the 1980s when malls opened in places such as Watertown, 25 miles away.

But this isn’t the typical dead-downtown ending. Croghan’s one business street is unusually busy for a rural village, with a meat market, Stump’s Liquor, Vinny’s Pizza, a maple museum, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor and more. Village historian Carol Schneeberger counts 37 village businesses in all that cater to local dairy farmers and passersby.

“They say this is the only town they know of that doesn’t have a ‘For Rent’ sign in an open window,” Miss Largett says.

Mr. Gagnier confirms it. Every storefront is full.

Marilley’s remains a strong attraction, but more as a museum. The loggers who once came in with their Friday pay are now summer-camp browsers who roam for an hour, say thanks and walk out, sometimes empty-handed. Bus tours and school field trips sometimes drop by. The last of the button-up shoes went to people who put on plays.

But there’s no talk of charging a museum-type fee at the door.

“Then we wouldn’t be what we are,” Miss Largett says.

She stays busy, bouncing between a sewing machine and the bookkeeper’s nook, where a calendar from 1935 waits patiently on the wall, tilted. There are no computers, though they’re not taboo. To help the store’s sale, one of Mr. Marilley’s sons even created a Web site: www.generalstoreforsale.com.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide