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The Corner Store ■ Memories and History of a Small-Town Family-Owned Business ■ Walter Reed Hardester


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22 • The Corner Store A New Building and Combining the Stores In 1959, Dad and John decided to build a new building. They decided on the site where the current store is located: the corner of Highway 29 and Young Street. My mother, Marion Gore Hardester, put up her stock as security at the bank to borrow the money to buy the land and build the new store. The store property was purchased from Ray Moody, and an existing house was torn down to build the store. Ray Moody was paid $10,000 for the property, and the building cost $100,000. The original building was 60 feet by 160 feet, or 9600 square feet. The sales floor was 60 feet by 120 feet, or 7200 square feet. All three stores— the grocery, the hardware store, and the clothing store—were moved into the new building. The lumber yard was sold to Bailey Lumber Company. The new Corner Store opened in May of 1960. A new feature was a meat market with pre-wrapped meat. Dad told me the old-timers all said he and John were making a bad mistake by moving the business too far out of the center of town. However, Dad and John were confident in what they were doing and ignored the advice of the old-timers. Prior to completion of the new building, Mr. Bailey of the Bailey Lumber Company from Lower Lake declared he was going to move into a yard in Middletown. He said they were going to run the Mountain Lumber Company out of business. Dad went to him and asked, “Why don’t you buy us out rather than run us out of business?” They agreed on a price and made a deal. It was set up as a ten-year pay off. Dad and John felt the cash from the sale of the lumber yard could be used for financing the new store. The first thing Mr. Bailey did was fire Rod Huston and put Frank Trask, Bailey’s son-in-law, in charge. That was the end of people doing business with them because customers were loyal to Rod. About three years after they bought the business, it closed. Bailey had to make payments to Dad and John for years after the business folded. Dad and John kept paying rent on the Odd Fellows building—the building south of the original store—for several years after opening the new store. This prevented anyone else from moving into that building and competing with the new Corner Store. The new building was the newest and most modern building in Lake County at the time of completion. It was built by Madsen Commercial Builders of Napa.


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Walter Reed hardester • 23 Two views of the new Middletown Corner store, 1960.


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24 • The Corner Store Above: The Corner Store’s exterior, 1960; below: signage of the new Middletown Corner Store, 1960.


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Walter Reed hardester • 25 John Irwin had some severe medical problems during the construction of the project, so Dad had the full responsibility of the project—not only of financing but of opening the new business and closing the old ones. John was unable to come to the store for moral support or to help. John had quite a battle but was finally able to recover and come back to work. When John came back, he took an interest in the butcher shop. He turned out to be quite a meat cutter, and I think he loved it. I Return to Middletown and the Business I had always had the intention of returning to Middletown to go into business with my father and John but had originally planned to get some experience somewhere else. When John got sick, Judy and I decided I should come back as soon as Judy graduated from college. That gave me one year of work experience. That year, June 1960 to June 1961, I worked at the Emporium in downtown San Francisco as an assistant manager of the basement bedding and linen department. It was a very good experience, and I learned a lot. Shortly after I started that job, the manager was promoted and the new manager was out of the offices and didn’t have any retail experience, so he had me do all the buying, writing of ads, scheduling clerks, and basically doing his job. Mr. McCardle, the basement store manager, told me when I left that if things didn’t work out in the family business to come back and he would always have a job for me. That was a good feeling knowing that I didn’t burn any bridges. In June of 1961, I began work in Middletown. Eddie Tolleson was working at The Corner Store. He had been a Purity store manager before. Purity was one of the popular grocery chains in the 1950s that no longer exists. I learned “Purity mathematics” from him. That is, if a product normally sold for 59 cents but had a 10-cent-off label on it, he would price it at 57 cents. The customer didn’t get the savings; rather, the store made a little extra. It was dishonest, and I thought it was a poor reflection on us. Maybe because of the “Purity mathematics” that chain no longer exists. I started out working in the grocery department, often in the produce. Eddie and I decided to go into the produce market in Oakland one day a week. At the end of the week the produce we bought would still be fresher than produce


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26 • The Corner Store delivered by the only produce company at the time that delivered produce in Lake County, Levi Zentner. Zentner’s prices were high and their quality wasn’t the best. The Corner Store had its own truck because the co-op we belonged to, United Grocers Richmond, would not deliver to Middletown. Rather, we had to meet their truck in Calistoga and load our groceries onto our truck. That was an injustice. We were finally able to join United Grocers Sacramento, and they were willing to deliver to our back door because they did not have to drive over Mount St. Helena because they came in from the north. That saved us from having the expense of a man and a truck two days a week. It also meant we did not have to handle everything twice. One of those loads was a load of deli and frozen food, and if we had ever broken down we would have lost the whole load on a hot day. The Oakland Produce Market The produce market was located at Jack London Square just off Broadway and consisted of several blocks of old buildings. The buildings had open fronts, and the various companies located there would pile fresh produce in their open buildings, on the sidewalk, and out into the street. The merchandise was sold on the barter system. One had to shop the whole street, get prices from various companies, and then go back and buy what was needed. It was amazing how the prices would vary from vendor to vendor. One never paid the asking price. I soon learned who had the best prices on the different items of produce. Once you bought the various items, the vendors would hand-truck it to the back of your truck, and you would have to load it yourself. If the back end of your truck was clear, they would throw it up to you. After going several times with Eddie, I began making the trip by myself. I learned to shop for bargains. One day an item would be cheap, and the next day it could be high. After I got back to Middletown, I would write my advertisement according to what I had been able to purchase. The Corner Store got the reputation for having fresh, high-quality produce. I would normally leave at midnight on Monday night and would be back at the store about 7:00 am. I usually took Jack Barker with me because he loved the trip and was good company and good help. We would hit the market, and Jack would disappear. He knew he had a couple hours of free time because



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