|Where I'm From|
|O.C.B’s Rolling Store|
by Jim Allen
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I’m sure Alex didn’t "invent" the concept, but where I’m from, back in 1932, Alex Raymond had the first rolling store to make it up and down our gravel roads and turn rows.
Alex and Stella Raymond owned a Sunday store. These establishments were thus called because blue laws prohibited sales of most anything on Sunday. In typical Southern tradition though, county sheriffs everywhere, for a bit of pocket jingle, would overlook these laws and allow some obscure little stores to stay open 24/7 if they so wished. It was an early, rural version of a convenience store, only with rag bologna hanging from the ceiling or soda crackers from a wooden barrel instead of fried chicken and nachos from a display warmer.
These businesses were never near the center of town and were usually just out of town. Ours was across the river levee behind a row of tenant houses, next to the city dump.
The Raymond’s store was called Ol’ Country Boys. This wasn’t actually the name of the store. The moniker came from a four-foot wide tin sign, advertising in big red letters "O.C.B." cigarette papers. In the early ‘40s the sign was nailed on the wall above the galvanized roof over the front porch to cover up an attic vent that sparrows kept nesting in. There it was protected from the elements by the gable of the main roof. Somebody, way before I was thought of, said the sign meant "Ol’ Country Boys." The name stuck.
The store was on the river. As a matter of fact, the back of the store was suspended on twenty-foot timbers above the muddy water. From mid-winter through spring though, the water was nearly out of its banks and Alex kept his pirogue at the store’s back door where he could just step into it and paddle away to check his traps or trotlines. He continued to trap and fish until I was nearly grown, although he had graduated to a johnboat with a small motor.
I vividly remember many hot summer days, flying over and down the levee on my bike, suddenly stopping the pedals, sliding to a stop on the loose gravel and discarded pop tops in front of their store then climbing up the several stair treads to the thick shade and smell of the honeysuckle covering the front porch. There one could dig for a beverage from an ice-filled oblong watering trough. It was not uncommon to have to push several large stiff catfish out of the way to get to an Orange Crush, R. C. or a belly-washer Mr. Cola. If you wanted to quench your thirst there during the winter, chances are Alex would have a mink, otter, squirrel or rabbit corpse he had laid in the electric drink box found inside the store. The sensory train wreck of forcing a peach soda down through the smell of a mink is something I can’t put into words.
During the Great Depression, few country people made it into town more than a couple of times a year, so Alex took the store to them when he drove their rolling store from O.C.B.’s every Saturday. That old Hudson flatbed truck was fashioned with a small wood-framed structure Alex put together that functioned much like a modern self-contained RV, only it looked like a miniature version of the store complete with corrugated roof and vertical board and batten siding.
Although the rolling store was gone by the time I came around, I’m told the rig had foot tubs, scrub boards, ironing boards and kegs holding all sorts of household and farm needs strapped all along the sides. Once the back door was opened outward and secured, Alex would reach up to pull down a set of steps that hinged from the trailer floor. The steps ended about six inches from the ground, stopped by chains that popped taunt on either side and doubling as hand rails. Inside the rolling store a person could purchase bolts of fabric, needles, thread and cotton bags containing 20 pounds of flour that could, when emptied, be used as a pillow case or cut and sewn into underwear. He carried sugar cure, rock salt and injection syringes during hog killing weather and jars lids, pectin, spices, sugar and ladles come vegetable and fruit harvesting time. During summer he also had jugs of bug spray, hand sprayers and steel bug screening for windows and screen doors. Cloth diapers, glass nursing bottles and rubber nipples along with colic medicines, Black Drought, Milk of Magnesia and castor oil kept the children in tip-top shape. He sold shoes, shoe laces, boots, hats, animal traps and shells for rifles and shotguns. He had coal oil in two or five-gallon returnable demijohns, lamps, wicks and globes. Around Christmas he’d double up on crates of oranges and apples and he’d offer some brightly painted wooden yo-yos, spinning tops, cat-eye marbles and baby dolls with eyes that opened and closed.
People were very poor when he first started his rolling store so, instead of dealing in hard currency, he would often barter. He readily traded cloth to be made into a dress or a shirt for some raccoon or beaver pelts that he’d sell to the furrier when he came around. He’d trade coffee beans for jars of fig preserves or a sack of sugar for homemade bonnets or aprons. He had people producing more smoked meat than their family could eat just to trade with him. He even had one family that grew their own tobacco for trade. Capitalism was alive and well in the middle of nowhere! All his bartered goods could then be sold at O.C.B.’s where he would make a small profit. Life wasn’t easy but it was good.
He drove his store until the late 1950’s when there were enough privately owned vehicles to get country folks to stores in town.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the inside of the small store with its few contents and their meager personal possessions. Alex and Stella’s bed was in one corner with an enlarged photo of the rolling store framed on the wall to one side. They cooled with whatever breeze there was and a box fan in the summer. They heated in the winter with a small pot-bellied stove mounted in the middle of the floor. I can see them sitting on the front porch. He’s been whittling and still holds a piece of cedar in his gnarly old hand. She’s shelling purple hulled peas while swaying back and forth in her rocker. They talk about long-gone customers and rolling store regulars…how they made do all those years. I think they were genuinely happy…I know they were.