Southern Way

Southern Way

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The End of an Era, the death of the Pig

The end of an era has come. Our two home town Piggly Wiggly grocery stores have closed. Yes, there is one more on the outskirts of town, but it is just a Piggly Wiggly in name only.

These two stores in town were owned and operated by a  family seen as a pillar of the community. The father started the stores and the sons ran them until they closed. One store opened the year I was born - older than I wish to admit. The other opened in 1980.  But age aside they were institutions.

Oh, we have had nicer upscale grocery stores that have come and gone during this time, I will admit. And the Pigs (as they were affectionately known by locals) were not the biggest of stores. They didn't always have the newest and greatest items. For instance I doubt you could find Pesto should you need some. There may only be two choices of spaghetti sauce to choose from (yes spaghetti sauce - not pasta or marinara sauce). You may be able to find white rice in every size from a one pound bag to a twenty pound bag (yes twenty pounds right there on the bottom shelf) but don't bother to ask for wild rice, chances are they were not going to have it.

They had a generous supply of fatback, lard, salted pork, and salted herring. You could find locally made sausage, liver pudding, and hog's head cheese. In the poultry area they carried the best small tender whole chickens I could find no where else.

The produce section was marked by signs written in red or black magic marker that told you the particular local farm where the yellow squash or the zucchini or radishes came from that week. There was usually a small sign with the name of the farmer who grew the fresh collards taped on the end of the buggy full of bunches of the greens. The shrimp were marked with what part of the coast they were caught, some noted Charleston, some Edisto Island, some Beaufort. It just depended on the day.

A shopper could find Blenheim Ginger Ale and Nehi soft drinks, in orange and grape flavors, on their shelves long before those products attained national notoriety. On the household cleaning aisle you could still find Twenty Mule Team Borax, cans of real lye, and boxes of Ajax. And on the toiletries aisle I feel certain they still carried bars of Camay, Dove, Ivory, and Dial soap, as well as Ponds Cold Cream. Now the store was stocked with everything a consumer needed, and in up-to-date products, just not the widest or most gourmet selection you may have on your shopping list.

Each year, the day in December the Christmas trees, held up by strings, each in their pans of water, appeared in front of the store told me that the holiday season had officially started. And I knew summer was upon us when I saw the first ears of sweet corn  and Low Country tomatoes in the produce section.

Then there were the conundrums. They had a wine section, by far the best and most sophisticated in town. Many bottles of wine had a hand written index card on the shelf noting the Wine Spectator's rating as well as the particular notes and finish of that specific wine. Who knew? Seriously.

Yes, there was the cracked tile floor. Huge sheets of paper attached to the front glass windows of the stores that listed the day's specials handwritten in thick colorful magic marker (done in an incredibly talented handwriting I might add.) The stores were not lit like newer more modern stores nor was there soft music playing that lulled you into shopping.

The Piggly Wiggly was where you were most likely to run into old friends. My Mama said they had the "Carriage trade", whatever. I just know that chances were I would see at least one or two old family friends or folks I grew up with on each trip. Not to say they did all their shopping there, but they always did some.

The stores served all socioeconomic groups. One would see a cross section of our fair town up and down the aisles on any given day. The asphalt parking lot with its faded lines and occasional potholes was filled with old farm trucks as well as shiny new Mercedes. Moms in their large suburbans were parked next to older women in their Buicks and Oldsmobiles. You were just as likely to see a late model Land Rover as a well a worn Camry. Whether it was the mini-van or sedan, truck or SRV, fancy sports car or station wagon, it did not matter, they all were valued customers.

The Piggly Wiggly was the hometown store. It was the place I went in and never encountered a store employee who did not stop and say "Hello" with a genuine smile. I never had a problem finding someone to assist me when I had a question. They were the last place I know where young men bagged your groceries then insisted on carrying your bags to your car. On the way out the door chances were the two of you would engage in some friendly conversation. Once I noticed a small sign by the door that explained carrying groceries to customers' car was a service of the store and the young men were not doing it for tips.

That was the feeling you got - no one was doing their job for tips. They were doing it because the business was built on customer service - an old idea. The business worked hard to support the local farmers and in doing so provided fresh produce that was usually just a day or two from the fields. One of the son's passion for wine was shared with all the customers when he took the time to hand write the reviews for the wine and tape them to the shelves.

Hoke driving Miss Daisy to the Piggly Wiggly may have brought the brand nationwide recognition, although I had many friends at the time who found it hard to believe I actually grew up with and still shopped at a Piggly Wiggly- for real. Out of town guests often insisted on getting a "I'm Big with the Pig" t-shirt to take home with them.

Some call it old, some refer to it as quaint. I think of it as a local institution that cared about their community and their customers. No, chances were you were not going to find everything on your grocery list if you cooked beyond the local church cookbook. But there was more to the store than what was on its shelves.

Things change. Life goes on. Businesses come and go. But with the loss of these Piggly Wiggly stores, life as we once knew it in our hometown is gone with the wind and it is a shame that all we have left is that warm place in our hearts. There was that comforting feeling each of us had as we walked through that door, whether or not they had what we needed, they truly appreciated us being there and would do anything they could to help us and smiled while they did it.

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