Reba, Gerald and Wanda Kommer at Kommer's Grocery near Metropolis, Ill., 1982. The store closed a few years later. Gerald Kommer, who has lived in Atlanta and St.Louis but has returned to Metropolis, was photographed again in March where the store once stood.
A project to document mom-and-pop stores picks up again after 35 years
Until it closed in the mid-1980s, Kommer’s Grocery was its own town, in a small way. It sat at a crossroads 10 miles north of Metropolis and drew people from the surrounding rural area for groceries and gossip — and barbed wire, too, if you needed that.
Gerald Kommer hadn’t even reached his 10th birthday when his mom, Reba, would step out for errands and leave him to run the store. “My dad was always outside in the barn or in the shop working on a car. If I needed him, he was available. Honestly, I don’t hardly remember a day that I didn’t work in the store.”
I photographed Gerald, his mother Reba and his grandmother Wanda in 1982, sitting in their usual spot at the back of the store. I was a college photography student working on a documentary project, an effort to record the dozens of mom-and-pop grocery markets you could still find in southern and central Illinois, as well as parts of Missouri and Kentucky.
I’ve returned to the project recently, curious about what had happened to these wonderful places. I didn’t assume anything, I knew most of them would be gone and most likely, the people too. The idea was to create a visual timeline with two points decades apart.
Gerald’s mother and grandmother had long passed when I photographed him again. This time it was by himself on the site where the store had been, and he told me about growing up there.
“Every day there would easily be five or six or seven farmers who had been out in the field all morning long, and they would come in for lunch. They would sit in there and tell stories, talk about their crops and talk about what they were dealing with on the farm.”
Aside from offering milk, bread, lunchmeat and canned goods, the store also functioned as a town square might, a place where a community came together.
“You always knew what was going on, there were never any secrets,” he says. It was a place to hear things and share things.
“When things did happen, they would come in and tell my mom or my grandmother to let everybody know that So-and-So had their baby. That was a big way of spreading the news.”
Darlene Lane Littrell, 17, worked part-time for Rose and Gary Reed in their store near Cave in Rock, Ill. The Reeds razed the old building and replaced it with a new, larger store on the same spot, but it closed in 1993. Littrell and her family still live in the area.
Through the door to the right, farmers and other visitors held court in a seating area. A large glass and wooden counter made an L-shape through the room. A display case of cigars sat on the top.
The counter stretched to the back of the store. It ended near the display of cigarettes and the cash register at a workspace for Reba. She kept a collection of receipt books, a customer’s name written on each. “That was my mother’s bookkeeping system; it kept track of what everybody bought and what they owed.”
In Burfordville, Cave in Rock, River aux Vasses, Oscar, Goreville, Camp Grove and Cairo, the stores were easy to find. They were all unique except for one commonality: In every store, it was hard to miss the profoundly sad evidence that they were losing ground to the march of progress.
Who killed the mom-and-pop?
What ended the viability of these stores is probably not what you think.
It’s tempting to blame today’s big box supermarkets and without a doubt, large-scale stores have had an effect on small businesses, but consider the challenges that came in the 1880s when tin cans and cardboard boxes came on the scene.
Along with other factors, the development of cans and boxes had an enormous impact on the mom-and-pops’ battle to survive against the chain stores.
In “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America,” Marc Levinson explains that it was the growth of chain stores in the early 20th century and their use of brand marketing that really did in the smaller businesses.
“Consumers in the 1880s chose items in bulk containers. Vinegar, molasses and laundry soap was in barrels, slabs of bacon hung on hooks, wheels of cheese were under glass,” he says. People bought by the pint or the pound. From store to store, there were no distinguishing features in the products.
With the development of the box and the can, “it became quite feasible to ship products in small containers and you could put labels on them, and so now it became practical to sell cereal and soap and other products with brand names on them.”
One of the most successful in exploiting the power of brand marketing was The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, later known simply as A&P.
“The mom-and-pop stores really hated the chains,” Levinson says. “And so did the wholesalers because you had a lot of small wholesalers who served the mom-and pop stores. And many of the chains were what you called self-distributors. They owned their own warehouses and tried to deal directly with the food manufacturers.
“The commercial wholesalers thought they might be driven out of business if the chains prospered, which indeed proved to be the case later.”
Even the federal government was concerned with how big the chains had grown.
By 1940, A&P was the largest U.S. grocery company, so big that during World War II, the company was found guilty in a major antitrust case brought in Danville for selling groceries too cheaply.
Mom and pop simply couldn’t keep up with the buying power and the low prices offered by the likes of A&P.
Standing in the front yard of his home on Poplar Street in Cairo, Cornell McGoy remembers when the town at the very southern tip of the state had a market on nearly every corner. Today there isn’t a single grocery business in the city.
“I’ve been living in this area, oh, off and on ever since I was born, and I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. Like Frankie’s across the street over here, Booker’s down on that corner, Arthur Bee’s on 24th street, the Chat and Chew on 23rd ….
“Our man Frankie was one of the best people you had in the neighborhood,” he says. Just across the street from McGoy’s home is where Frankie Kol operated a market and variety store. Between clumps of overgrown weeds you can see bricks from the old building strewn about the empty lot. “He let people have food on credit.”
That might have been the biggest thing going for the independently owned stores, and it set them apart from the extremely competitive chain stores.
“Yeah, maybe there wasn’t the variety that there is in the Walmart, but I wager you’ll never feel the same way walking into a Walmart that you would’ve felt walking into one of these stores. You’ll never have the same personal relationships with the people there either,” says Gary Kolb.
Kolb is a retired dean of the College of Communications at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and was a photography instructor in 1982. He was my adviser when I began photographing the stores, and I recently asked him to take another look at the project and some of the new pictures.
“I used to tell students in my basic photography classes, ‘Do you want to make an interesting photograph? OK, take any photograph and put it in a drawer for 50 years, then take it out. I guarantee it will be interesting,’ “ Kolb says. “If it has people in it and if it has cars in it, if it has mode of dress in it, hairstyles in it, it’ll be even more interesting.”
Photography has a unique relationship to time, he says; no other medium can describe time in precisely the same way. A photograph captures a moment and preserves it.
Photographs and their relationship to history are based on a firm set of facts established the second the image is recorded, Kolb says, and yet when time intervenes, they are re-interpreted as new contexts are added to them.
What makes a picture transcend a simple record of facts is the emotional and psychological response it can trigger, perhaps not at the time it was made, but only years later does it become poignant, Kolb adds.
Irma Nunn, owner of the Old Mill Store in Burfordville, Mo., 1982. When Nick Stern bought Nunn's house it included the stand-alone store, which he uses as his workshop.
Not one of the grocery stores I photographed in 1982 is still in business. Some of the buildings are there, but an Italian restaurant, attorney’s office or a computer repair shop now occupy the spaces that once offered kitchen staples. In some places, there is scant evidence that a store ever existed.
An exception is McCormick’s Grocery and General Store on Illinois 242, south of Wayne City near Interstate 64. It’s been closed for 22 years, but the day to clear it out has not yet arrived.
The grocery products are long gone from the shelves, but the shelves are still there.
So is the wood counter in front of them, a pay phone on the wall and the candy case.
On the back wall, the steps still lead up to the kitchen of the house where Walter and Wanda McCormick lived while they ran the business for 34 years. Walter died in 1994 and the store was closed a few months later; Wanda still lives in the house.
“For a kid to grow up in a place like this was interesting, educational at times,” says Shaun Stone, who was four years old when I took a picture of him on his grandfather’s lap.
Shaun spent a lot of days hanging out with his grandfather. “I remember sitting on the counter, talking to Grandpa, always watching TV, always eating a Snickers bar and drinking a Coke.” He watched cartoons when he was young but later it was often horse races. That was one of Walter’s passions that he shared with Shaun.
People would come in to pick up a few items, say hello and leave. Others stayed for hours, sitting around a wood-burning stove.
“We always had a TV on. People would watch some of the baseball games; they’d catch a few innings then leave. It was a good place for a lot of community gossip. Sometimes the sheriff would show up and have a coffee and talk about what was going on in the area, if there was anything bad going on, what have you. Everybody was pretty much there all the time, you never knew who was going to show up, really.”
“My grandfather was not a very wealthy man but was rich in experience, and he knew how to manage his money to get to where he needed to be. He was very rich in knowledge because of all the people he met through that store,” Stone says.
Walter McCormick and his grandson Shaun Stone at McCormick’s Texaco and store in Wayne City, Ill. Walter and his wife Wanda ran the store for 34 years, living in a house adjoining the store. Even though it closed a few months after Walter died in 1994, it looks largely the same today. Shaun was photographed there again in March.
Rich in experience, indeed. Mom and pop didn’t just sell things in cans and boxes; their most valuable commodity was free. They were the place to make a human connection, where people met face-to-face to share joys and concerns, to give or get advice. They were community before it went online.
I’ve always thought that it’s the little, everyday things around us that say more about who we are than epic, world-changing events. The things we take for granted are often the very things we miss most when they’re gone.
The idea that our perspective changes as we move along a timeline and then look backward fascinates me, and I think Gary Kolb was right. I took these pictures and then put them in a box, and 34 years later, they’re more interesting to me.
And I miss mom and pop.
Virgil Kline pumped gas, fixed cars and sold groceries from his spot on the corner of Illinois 15 and County Road 2400 East near Fairfield, Ill, which was knows as Kline's corner. His son Richard remodeled the building and uses it now for his law practice.
Twyla Parkins owned and operated the Adair Cafe in Adair, Ill. in 1984. It's had different owners and has undergone renovations since then but the cafe is still popular thanks to Barb Featherlin, who has owned it for the past ten years.
Tressa Marchildon and her husband, Frank, sold groceries, fresh meat and sundry items from their store in McClure, Ill. Jennifer Rhymer lives in the upstairs of the building today and runs a buy-sell-trade business with her partner Joe Livingston.
Clinton Modglin at Modglin's market in Villa Ridge, Ill., 1982. The vacant building still sits along Old U.S. 51.
Don Albright, owner of the Kozy Korner Kafe in Goreville, Ill., 1982. The former restaurant and shop is now the home of NFL Bookkeeping and Tax Service, owned by David Westfall.
Tommy Roach at Roach's Store in Grand Chain, Ill., 1982. Today, Ray Fish owns the building where he repairs and sells used computers.
Bill and Mary Sue Sargent opened Sargent's store in 1964, which was attached to the front of their home in Hiram, a tiny community in rural Missouri. The Sargents had closed out the store in 1994 and were remodeling it to add living space to their home when an electrical fire destroyed it. Following Mary Sue’s death just a few years later, Bill remarried and eventually built a new home on the same spot.
Joann Sperry and her husband, Howard, took over operation of Sperry Sundries in Alexis, Ill. in 1963 from Howard's parents and they ran it together for more than 24 years. She said they watched the kids in town grow up. "I'm a people person and I missed the people when we closed." The contents were auctioned off and the building sold in the mid-1980s but it deteriorated and was eventually razed. Today a storage building sits in the gap left by the missing facade. Joann posed with a painting of the store.
Everett Vinson personalized his store in Bloomfield by placing family pictures on the shelves. They included two framed photos of his sons, Gary and Bobby, which he had made in 1953 and hung high on the wall. Everett and his wife, Halloween, ran the business for 45 years; it closed in 1990. Gary was photographed on the site of the old store holding the portrait of himself as a 7-year-old.
Poplar Street in Cairo, Ill. at one time had a market on almost every corner, residents say. Frankie's Variety Store at the corner of 24th and Poplar streets was one of them. It was owned by Frankie Kol, who was known to let people have food on credit during rough times. After Kol closed the business and moved to Chicago, the building fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed.
Thelma Higgins and her husband, Donald, owned and operated Higgins' Five and Dime store on East Locust Street in Chatsworth, Ill. It's now the office of the Illinois State Rifle Association, where Richard Pearson is executive director.
Edgar Naeger's store in River Aux Vasses, Mo., 1982. The Naeger store closed in 1990 and was demolished six years later.
Angelo and Tillie Forneris' store in Ellisville, Ill. used to be a bank but it might have been more popular when the couple turned it into a store that sold fresh meat, dairy, groceries and as all small markets did, penny candy. Today the space is used for selling crafts made by area residents, including Becky Powell who owns the building. It's open during special events such as the Sassafras Festival and Spoon River Days.
Herman Weber's market was on the corner of Wisconsin and Forest Hill avenues in Peoria. Today, Addison Demanes, posing with Millie, and his father Scott run Demanes Animal Hospital on the site.
Lawerence Fatheree ran owned Wayne City Sundries on Main Street next to the railroad tracks in Wayne City. It was a popular hangout for people of all ages. A Citgo gas station and convenience store sits in the same place now, and it's also a place to gather. Gereal Greenwalt, Benny Greenwalt, Carroll Greenwalt and Eric Dougherty are a few of the regulars.
Norbert Pautler at Pautler's Red & White grocery in Murphysboro, Ill., 1982. His nephew, Mark Pautler, was photographed in the same space. It now is Cummare's Italian Restaurant, a popular spot for lunch and dinner across the street from the Jackson County courthouse.