This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
This lazy summer afternoon, it's drizzling, inside and out. A bad case of writer's block makes my fingers fumble at the keys. No wonder I get this sudden urge to walk down to Hiebert's Variety Store for some Horlick's Malted Milk Balls and horehound sticks. But as usual, I'm late—by about fifty years.
In those old days, before the coming of pale imitations with names like Woolworth's and Ben Franklins (themselves now replaced by minimarts), real variety stores dotted the Mississippi Valley and the prairie towns up above the bluffs. A community was ranked not by its size or the number of churches, but by the quality of its variety store.
Was there, for instance, a candy counter just inside the door with barrels of lemon drops, all-day suckers, and circus peanuts—and sponge candy from October until the first of March?
Was there a pressed tin ceiling high above a darkly oiled wood floor?
For it to be a real variety store, it had to be presided over by a small and usually elderly husband and wife from a corner office. As if they were Wizards of Oz, they magically appeared wherever there were customers, manipulating the stock of gloves, perfumes, toy cars, kewpie dolls, and kitchen utensils. They seemed to spend much of their time putting up and taking down decorations for Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, and Halloween and Thanksgiving.
For a small child, the price of admission to the variety store was just right—a penny perhaps for a stick of licorice. With twenty-five cents earned from pulling mustard plants out in the field, even books were possible, those "little big books" with varnished covers.
The old variety store was a democracy, especially on drizzly afternoons when the farmers came to town. Outside, people went their separate ways: the farmers to their fields, the townspeople to their jobs, the Catholics to their ornate brick church, the Baptists to their little white chapel. But we all came to the variety store, where we all socialized, and all, rich and poor, bought the same fifty-nine-cent can openers for kitchens.
I still have the one my mother bought at Hiebert’s. Touching it has melted away the writer's block.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.