Forgot the milk? These little shops go above and beyond a small town’s needs. It’s a matter of survival.
It’s 4pm and the door to Echunga General Store swings open. A schoolboy enters, peruses a rack full of magazines and eventually leaves holding a can of soft drink. It’s not long before he returns.
“Excuse me,” he says, extending a hand full of coins. “I don’t think I paid you enough.”
It’s not a gesture witnessed often in city delis, supermarkets and service stations, but this is the Hills and owners Teresa and Brian Johnson are accustomed to honest regulars.
“That’s typical here,” Brian says. “We often wonder whether our prices are too low. They’ll have a 20-dollar note in their hand and when you tell them how much it is they’ll go, ‘Oh! Hang on, I’ve got a 10-dollar note here.’” He laughs. “People expect us to cost the equivalent of a service station but we try to hold our prices as tight as we can.”
Later in the day, further south, the telephone at Meadows Mini Mart disturbs co-owner Tash Young as she closes for the day. “Are you still open?” asks the woman at the end of the line. “I need milk.”
It’s 7.15pm and the store is closed but Tash tells the woman to pop down anyway. “I’d hate for her to have no milk in the morning for the kids,” she says. “You go a little above and beyond sometimes. People have come in for a pharmacy item that’s out of stock and I’ve dashed home to get Gastrolyte [Jelly] ice blocks out of the freezer for them and said, ‘Here you go, I’m not going to use them’.”
That’s the beauty of the corner store: community spirit.
Call them what you want: general store, corner store, town local. They’re all packed with pantry-fillers, charm and determination. They need it. As the retail landscape changes and larger towns and cities are swamped with big chain supermarkets and mega sales, the little fellas have to think outside the box.
I make a lot of the coffees before customers get out of the car. I’ve got the way they like their coffee written up on a board.
“We’re only 10 kilometers from Mount Barker but we’re far enough away that when people forget what they were buying at Woolworths, they think, ‘Well, I’m not going back in there, I’ll just drop into the general store’,” Brian says. “If you’re in the bigger towns that have Woolworths or Coles then yes, [corner stores] are disappearing. They can’t compete.”
It’s the ‘we do it all’ nature of humble Hills corner stores that keeps devoted locals coming. Part grocery store, part takeaway shop, part café, part newsagent, they do it all to meet rural town needs. The personal touch doesn’t go astray, either.
“We’d have 30 regulars that get a paper from here every day,” Brian says. “On top of that, there’s regulars who get their coffee each morning and their pie or pasty each day.” In the four years since the couple took on the little business, the former cellar door manager clocked up some serious facial recognition skills. “I make a lot of the coffees before customers get out of the car. I’ve got the way they like their coffee written up on a board.”
Many corner stores are located in historic buildings. They can’t mess with heritage, but store owners move with the times to keep their services relevant. Brian and Teresa ditched display units full of groceries to make way for tables and chairs.
They also gave the adjacent garden a facelift, adding outdoor seating used by regular community groups (local gents on the third Wednesday of each month and ladies’ morning tea is held monthly, too).
“The garden was full of four-to-five foot high weeds when we arrived. We changed it to make it feel friendly and inviting.”
In lots of respects we are being manipulated by trends, but that’s progress. Sometimes I think we forget we still have choices.
It is an approach mirrored at Gumeracha General Store, aka The Top Shoppe, which Kylie Biocic and her parents Tony and Marie Biocic took on two years ago. In addition to racks full of daily essentials, they sell takeaway food and gifts, and have a little stall full of local produce.
“People don’t use us to do their weekly shopping but if they’ve forgotten something and need to grab one item, it’s really great they have that option in the town,” Kylie says. The family added a deck where community groups meet over a cuppa (it is particularly popular with local mums, grandparents and tai chi groups) and Devonshire tea. “We were quite surprised at how that took off. A local lady makes the scones and we use local Lenswood jam as well. People always come and ask if it’s for sale so we point them to the little stand. It’s very popular.”
A resident one-legged magpie called Stumpy also enjoys the treats. “He’s very spoilt. He goes over to the butcher and gets fresh meat then comes here. He’ll sometimes go and sit on the table with customers, so we give him food and he usually flies away and leaves them alone.”
Humans get special treatment, too. Free wi-fi is aimed at luring in international visitors en-route to see the Big Rocking Horse. It’s a gesture overlooked by many popular CBD cafés. “We’ve done a lot of travelling and I know it’s something I look for,” Kylie says. “They might want to check their emails or put up their selfies.”
Like most general stores, The Top Shoppe is open seven days a week but the family lives in the cottage attached to the store (the café section is in the former main bedroom), so the commute is a short one. It’s not just livelihood, it’s a way of life. “My parents owned two shops previously – one in Port Adelaide and also a general store in Port Victoria. It had a post office and everything.”
It’s all hands on deck. In Meadows, Tash Young and business partner Michelle Crowden’s children lend a hand. Their husbands Stephen and Mark are up early making sandwiches. “They start at 4.30am and we open at 5.30am,” Tash says. “It’s a little bit jovial in the morning. Quite the comedy hour.”
They do it because they love it.
“I actually love the business,” Brian says, back in Echunga. “The only thing I’d say against it is the hours we have to work. Holidays are rare. We do have part-time employees but in a small business like this you can’t afford to have too many otherwise the bottom line doesn’t look very good.”
At the end of a long day, he says the job satisfaction is worth it. “We don’t get time to be part of the community as much as I thought we would, but we feel we’ve brought a lot of the community back in to us.”
Yvonne Alexander is a big fan of the ‘orn’ word, too. She and husband Dennis owned Macclesfield’s Lucky 7 and Maccy Melting Pot (all one business) for eight years. They turned a quaint little cottage attached to the general store into a café to keep community vibes strong. The menu was simple (though the range of gluten and lactose-free treats impressive) and rooms packed full of couches and local handcrafts gave customers a place to stop and breathe.
We don’t get time to be part of the community as much as I thought we would, but we feel we’ve brought a lot of the community back in to us.
Yvonne likens the appeal of authentic corner stores to the qualities that draw people to live in country towns. “These areas that are like little gardens, they’re living and breathing what we need and want in our lives. Love and warmth.” She pauses. “You know what I think they’re like? I think they’re like the frogs of the world. These sort of places are desperately needed but they’re being squashed out.”
In May, Yvonne and Dennis handed over the keys to new owners Mary Rohde and Ray Duffield, owners of The Macclesfield Hotel across the road. The pair put the pub on the market to focus on the general store, now called The Maccy Shop and Café.
“My husband has a brain tumor and it was really hard to run the pub on my own,” Mary says. “We love Maccy and want to stay here, so this should be perfect.”
The couple are renovating the grocery and will bring the café into that space. The fluro lights and Lucky 7 branding will make way for their new, independent shop. “We’ll still have all the seating outside and will keep the gluten-free stock but will have more of a selection of food in the café, put up wallpaper and have seating in there,” Mary says. “It will be lovely, and the original [café] girls will stay on.” Renovations were planned to be completed by the end of May. “I’d love the locals to tell me what they’d like to see in the shop,” Mary says. “After all, we are the local store. I’m really excited.”
Former owner Yvonne is, too. “In lots of respects we are being manipulated by trends,” she says. “But that’s progress. Sometimes I think we forget we still have choices.”
If that choice means dropping into a corner store now and then or pulling the long hours involved in running one, perhaps they’ll be around a long while yet.
“It was a pleasure to start it and a joy to run,” Yvonne says. “It has made such a difference in this town and now I’ll return as a customer.”
Keen to check out these locals for yourself? Pay them a visit here:
Echunga General Store 12 Adelaide Road, Echunga
Meadows Mini Mart 7 Mawson Road, Meadows
The Top Shoppe / Gumeracha General Store 8 Albert Street, Gumeracha
Maccy Melting Pot 32 Venables Street, Macclesfield