The truth is, Mike never wanted to be a grocer.
The truth is, he wanted to be a doctor. His mother's cousin was the only doctor in their small town when Mike was just a little boy. Mike and his brother used to run wild in those exam rooms, terrorizing all the patients and trying to get just one good look at a gory wound.
Mike idolized Dr. Couch. He and Ivie would drive the doctor around town making house calls, and Dr. Couch would fall asleep the second they started moving after each visit, except when Ivie started driving too fast, and then Dr. Couch would wake up and tell him to slow the hell down. Mike would sit in the back seat and practice saying things like "slow the hell down" for later.
Ivie tells me the story as often as I ask to hear it, how he got into the grocery business.
Well, he worked behind the meat counter for a few years when Mike was just a baby, and he saved up some money to go into business with one of his good pals. Ivie remembers when they first started selling paper towels. Ivie's friend said bull shit, no one would ever want to buy a paper towel when they could just wash and dry the same one for free. Ivie also remembers when they started carrying the first milk in cartons, when before it had always been delivered in glass jars by the milk man.
One day in 1950, Ivie's friend decided he might want to retire. Ivie was still young, and the business was doing well, so he said, look I'll offer you what you've got in it. Ivie's friend said, well why don't you come to the house and talk to my wife about it? And Ivie said, whoa, I'm not in business with your wife, make up your mind right now.
So the man decided to retire and Ivie opened up the next day on his own. Instead of H & I Grocery, it became Ivie's Cost Plus 10%. It was an honest business model that he'd learned from his own father, who owned a general store downtown, to keep your prices low and let your customers know exactly how much profit you were making when they shopped with you.
Ten cents on the dollar.
Now, instead of terrorizing the doctor's office, where Dot worked as a receptionist, Mike and his older brother started terrorizing the grocery store.
They would pick up discarded cigarettes off the back loading dock and smoke whatever was left. They would front shelves by pulling the oldest stock to the front and putting the newest stock in the back. They spent all morning, noon, and night at the grocery store, and then they would load up in Ivie's truck and drive home to supper.
Then they'd do it again the next day, until eventually, it was in their blood.
The store was successful because customers were loyal and Ivie was a good friend to them and fair. When Dot quit working at the doctor's office, she came to the store to run a register and keep the books. Everyone already knew her from the doctor's, and they liked coming to the store because she'd ask them how they were feeling.
Eventually, both the boys grew up and went to college. Mike's older brother got his teaching degree. He worked for thirty years and then retired. He lives in a nice home next to Dot and Ivie and stays involved in church and golf.
Mike got his degree in chemistry. When he graduated, he was all set to go to medical school, to follow right in Dr. Couch's footsteps, who was saving the little hometown practice for Mike, but it didn't work out. Ivie called him home to help with the store, and Mike got married and started his own family.
Mike ran the store, along with his parents, until the 90s, when Ivie sold Mike the whole business for what it was worth. By that time, Mike's son was a teenager, and he had grown up in the store just like Mike had, bagging groceries, finding stray cigarettes, and fronting the shelves. Mike says that Michael would help him front shelves when he was just a little thing. Little Michael would get so frustrated at the people who'd put things back in the wrong place, and sigh his little boy sighs while fixing the canned food just right.
Mike had full custody of Michael by the time he bought the store, and lots of days, it was just the two of them running the place, until the store grew and Mike needed to hire more people.
He hired a meat cutter and a produce guy, a few girls to run registers, a couple of bag boys. As kids went off to college, he'd hire new kids to ring up and bag groceries. There aren't a lot of families in town who haven't once upon a time visited their kid working at the store.
Dot and Ivie didn't just retire when they sold to Mike. They worked odd jobs around the place for another twenty years, and Mike gave them free groceries and health insurance in exchange.
Dot kept the books until she got too confused to do it right. She battled many a cashier girl who tried to gently pry the books out of her hands toward the end. Mike had forbid her to go in the office and mess with those books, but she'd sneak in anyway, when he was busy.
And Ivie kept coming to the store to front shelves until even the lightest box of toilet paper was too heavy for him to pick up.
Even after they forgot how to run a register or lock the doors, they still drove up every day looking for a random grocery item, and they'd linger in the doors with their friendly faces hoping they'd recognize somebody familiar, even somebody just willing to chat with them.
They never walked away from what they'd built together.
I started working for Mike in 2005, just after my mom died and I was on my own. I took one of those open cashier jobs to support myself. I got set up with the job by my co-op teacher, who gave me two options for work in town--the grocery store or the gas station.
You've probably already read about how Mike and I fell in love in that store. It was the weirdest, happiest time of my life. He was, strangely, my best friend, and I loved coming to work to be near him.
I guess the first time I knew something was wrong was when I overheard the produce guy gossiping with the bag boys about how stressed out Mike was about the store. The produce guy said something like, "Don't bother him today. He just wants to front shelves and be left alone."
But I was eighteen, and I didn't care. I was going to graduate school and go off to college and never see these people again. I didn't have the space in my teenager brain to even learn about how the store worked. I just did my job and took my paycheck from Mike every week.
Even when I knew I loved Mike, I was separated from his finances because I was at college living on a scholarship. I do remember once that he came home very sad about something, and try as I might, all I could pry out of him was that he was worried about the store.
He said he didn't want to worry me too, but I remember he held his head in his hands, and that was enough to make me start paying attention.
One thing I grew to love about the store while I worked there was that it felt like my family. The customers who came in were regulars. They got to know me by my name and I memorized their orders. Sometimes, during the winter months, the older ones would call with a list, and Mike would box it up and drive it to them so they didn't have to get out in the cold and snow. Small children would come in, and Mike would slip them two quarters from the register while he rang up their parents, and they would gallop over to the toy machines to get themselves something special.
After Mike and I were married, I remember going to lunch with Dot and Ivie at a restaurant in town. We were standing in line for the buffet, and a woman older than me very obviously pointed at my in-laws with delight. She pointed them out to her parents and said, "It's Mr. and Mrs. Ivie!" She never approached them, but I knew what she was feeling, and I guessed that she had a lot of good memories from shopping at the store as a little girl.
But I noticed, as the years went by, that those older loyal customers started to die, and then the Walmart, which had been nestled on the left side of Mike's store, announced that they would be debuting in the coming months as a Super Walmart, with groceries, and they were going to build on Mike's other side. The parking lot traffic that had been there before with the smaller Walmart dried up to nil when the Super Walmart decided to build into the valley, installing their own red light and turning lane on the highway.
They separated themselves from us with a field of grass.
You could stand on the hill looking down into the valley and count a hundred cars in their parking lot. People came from all over, and they were so excited because Super Walmarts had everything, and it was a social event to go to the Super Walmart. Everybody who was anybody was there. And sometimes an hour would go by, and our parking lot would be empty. One car would drive up, and they'd get out to spend fifty cents at the drink box and then drive away only to turn their blinker on and go into the Super Walmart.
It was enough to make you sick, to make you cry. And Mike faced that every day.
Now, it wasn't all bad. There were still whole families who shopped with Mike and told their friends and belabored the point all over town: Ivie's is cheaper, their meat is better, what you spend there stays in town. And sometimes the tide would turn. Sometimes all ten spaces in front of the store would fill up, even if the parking lot was still empty. It was enough to make the note payment, to keep the lights on, the freezers running, and the employees paid.
But here were the difference between us and the Super Walmart, the differences that broke us.
When Walmart wants something on their shelves, it gets put on the shelf for free. Walmart pays for it only when they sell it. If they don't sell it, they don't pay for it. They ship it back, and the company that manufactured it, or the farmer that grew it, has to either eat that money or sell it to a place like Home Goods or TJMaxx for sometimes less than what it cost them to make it.
When we want something on our shelves, we pay for it before we get it. A truck can cost up to $30,000, and to keep the store running, we needed two trucks delivered every week.
There's also the size and selection we couldn't beat. Sometimes I'd go into Walmart for unavoidables--baby pajamas, thread, copier paper--and I could see down those food aisles that ran for miles with so many brands and options and new products and rollback stickers. It was like food magic down those aisles, whereas we carried the staples and we offered the option of getting whatever else you wanted on the next truck. But we couldn't carry it all like they do.
We also couldn't advertise like they do. When they drop their prices on say, ten items, those ten items go around town like news of a queen's visit, with flashing lights, commercials with bouncing smiley faces, and print ads in the newspaper. They get that money back elsewhere, right? You might get your cherries cheaper than with us this week, but they get their cherries and more out of you in the rest of your cart. But America hears "Every Day Low Prices" and zombiewalks right out of little parking lots like ours and into theirs.
Mike had been battling all this for years already when I left to move to Boston in July of 2009. When I finally picked up the phone and talked to him in September, we told each other our secret fears. Mine was that he was too old, that loving him was an actually crazy thing. His was that he would lose the store and me both and have nothing left.
That fall was the stickiest it had ever been. Mike got behind with the warehouse that sent him his trucks. They wouldn't send him another until he paid up, but he couldn't unless he had food to sell. That warehouse, which had provided him groceries for decades, wiped out his shareholder stocks to pay for the bill and cut him off without another word.
Mike had to put up his home for collateral with the bank, the home where he raised his son, and which was almost entirely paid for. He started making payments again at zero that year, but he finally got some breathing room. He also started off fresh with a new warehouse in the winter of 2009.
When I came home to him and we got married, he seemed like the Mike I'd only gotten tiny glimpses of before, when he was his happiest, when he wasn't thinking about the store. I knew he was in there.
And I thought we were going to be okay.
This part is hard to write.
I've sat here for ten minutes just trying to start this ending.
When we started fresh with the new warehouse, I dreamed that the store would turn around and be what it once was when Michael was a kid, when Mike was a kid--that is, a humble but successful family business that would put clothes on our back and food in our mouths.
But after Everett was born, it seemed like one disaster with the store after another. There was a big storm that knocked out power for days and we lost all our perishables. Mike stayed up for nights on end, running back and forth to the store, checking freezers, checking food, watching it all melt and spoil. I'd lie awake in bed, waiting for Everett to wake up again, wishing there was something I could do or say to make Mike feel better.
But we'd had a fight once about this. When I was still pregnant, Mike's frozen food compresser had gone on the blink, and we'd woken up at 1am to go down to the store and fill a dozen grocery carts with ice cream and haul it back to the walk-in freezer, just so we wouldn't lose the money we had in it. We had worked silently beside each other for an hour, Mike pulling them out faster than I could, and I was dropping things and reaching awkwardly around my belly, and Mike was cussing, and I stupidly said, "It's going to be okay."
He lashed out at me, not because of anything I was or wasn't doing, but because he'd kept it inside for so long. He hadn't ever told anyone but me about how he felt like a failure. There was no one else to lash out at. He felt bad immediately, but after that I found it hard to console him or talk to him at all about the store. He had told me very clearly, no, that everything would not be okay, so that when later that little saying came to mind, I'd choke on it.
After that storm, we lost all of our meat, our dairy, our produce, our frozen--basically half the store--Mike had to throw it all away and start again with new trucks.
He started communicating with this one guy at the warehouse in receivables. I thought for a long time that this guy was an angel sent to help us out. Mike told him what happened, and the guy felt sorry for us, and sent us a $50,000 truck even though we couldn't pay right then. They worked out a payment plan. The guy would carry the cost each month and charge Mike interest, and Mike would pay it back eventually.
And then the roof fell in on the store. This perfectly good building and the roof falls in after a rainstorm. For decades, Mike always paid an outrageous bill each month for insurance on the store for things like this, but the insurance company fought us both times, and while they were fighting us, we were losing business because there was water pouring in from the roof and buckets everywhere to catch the filthy runoff. Again, Mike would set an alarm for 1 and 3 in the morning so he could go to the store and empty those buckets and mop up the water and keep things clean.
It was disgusting. I don't blame those people who drifted away in that time. Mike had to sue the insurance company for a new roof, and we won, but we also had to pay a portion of that money to the lawyer that fought for us, so we really couldn't afford a new roof after all. We had to wait even longer to make enough profit to add to the roof fund.
After that $50,000 truck, I never asked about specific numbers again. I didn't want to know how far behind we were. When Christmas came, that guy at the warehouse gave us another break and sent us a bigger truck than we could afford again. Mike ran the numbers over and over. He knew exactly what he owed, and he worried it to death, counted it to death, ran it to death. When I would bring Everett down to the store and we'd sit in the office, I'd see all those numbers lying around, and I knew then what was coming.
One day in May, he woke up and Mike could not get in touch with that guy at the warehouse anymore. He would call and call and no one would pick up. And then he got a letter in the mail from their lawyers, and they wanted a sum that was three times what he owed in ten days or else they would sue us. Mike went over and over the numbers and couldn't figure it out. That guy wouldn't answer the phone anymore, and so Mike was in limbo.
On those days I didn't blog in June, I was loading up in the car with Mike and Everett to drive ninety minutes outside of town to get eggs, milk, and butter in bulk. There were no trucks anymore, just us, just what we could pick up in our own hands. It was a surprisingly humiliating time for us. Mike's employees gossiped around town about what was happening. Customers would come in and brazenly ask Mike in front of me and whoever else was there, "Why are the shelves empty? I hope you're not going out of business?"
Obviously, those ten days passed. They served Mike with papers right there in the front of the store in front of everybody. He kept the lawsuit from me for a time because it was Everett's birthday that week. He didn't want to ruin our boy's day. He didn't want me to look back on this time and remember what he felt like was his failure to provide for us. He waited until after the last celebration died down to break it to me, and I don't have to tell you I cried. I didn't cry then because I was scared; I cried because I loved him, and I loved him because he does nice shit like that.
But I did do a lot of crying in the days after because I was scared.
We would lie in bed next to each other in the dark, and he would tell me about someone he knew who went through the same thing. How the bank came in one day without notice and told them to all get out and take nothing with them. They wiped out the accounts, they drove them into bankruptcy, they took their home.
They took their home. I cried and cried thinking about how scared they must have been.
But then some good things happened too.
We started planning and talking together. It was the first time in a long time I'd been able to talk to Mike constructively about the store. Before, there was no plan to make, there was only surviving. We started bringing things home. I made him a list of what I could use in the next year. He cleaned out the baby shelves; we ferreted diapers away in closets.
Candis and Drew were here for the worst of it. The day Mike went to the bank and admitted defeat. I knew he felt like a failure. I knew he felt like he'd run Dot and Ivie's work into the ground. I knew he was questioning his worth as a man, husband, and father. I knew he worried about finding another job, about having to beg friends for help. And yet he came home to us and played with the babies and talked and loved and ate and was himself. I knew that Candis and Drew had come into our home for a reason then. They were a distraction we needed, and when I couldn't think about this anymore because it was too scary, I spent time with them instead.
On June 15, Mike put up the going out of business sign. Everything was marked off 25%, and I showered early that morning and took Everett to the store to be with Mike. I stayed in the office all day to act as a buffer. I hoped that if people saw me in there, they would leave Mike alone, but instead I saw the underbelly of people that day.
We'd never been busier. Some people pretended they hadn't even seen the sign. Some people pointed and whispered to each other. Some people filled four carts with groceries and some people backed box trucks up to the front door to load whatever they could take.
You could hear them over the office walls. Are they really closing, I sure do hate it for them, I wondered why the shelves were so empty, will they be dropping prices any lower this week, I might come back for some more?
It was disgusting. All this for 25% off? Mike said there were people calling him at 7am, as soon as the store opened that morning, people who had never shopped with us before, asking him to put meat back for them so they could get it at their leisure in the afternoon. When I heard that, a part of me turned real bitter, toward humans in general, but also this community. I felt betrayed. And if it had just been me, it wouldn't have hurt so bad, but it happened to Mike, and I was filled with a special kind of rage reserved for people who don't treat your husband right.
By this time, Mike had gone to Dot and Ivie and told them what happened. I didn't ask for details, but I can imagine it was very hard for him. I only hope they told him it wasn't his fault.
I'm sure they did.
They were there that day too. They came only to support him, but Mike told them to get a cart and take home everything they might need right then before it was all gone. While they were there, a very wealthy, socially-prominent woman walked in to stock up on cheap canned drinks. She used to shop with us, but somewhere along the way she stopped. I saw her put her hand on Ivie's arm, and I heard her say, "Are y'all really going out of business? I sure do hate that. Did you just get tired of it?"
And Ivie, bless his little heart, said, "It's been a real long time since we've seen you in here." It was just simple and understated, but it had a lot of power too. You could tell she knew what he meant, and that was the end of that.
Frankly, I was glad someone got a word in. After years of groveling and being nice and hoping for return business, someone finally got a word in. And Ivie did it in his dignified way.
Mike said the only people acting right in those days were his regular customers. The ones who said, "Dammit, I'm paying full price, don't you give me that discount." The ones who came in for their regular groceries and left with nothing else. The ones who'd give him a hug but say nothing more. Those are the people he put meat back for.
Those are the people that take a part of the bitterness away.
So it ended. I went in to the store last week on the last day, and I had to walk away from everybody quickly because the sight of all the empty shelves scared me, and I couldn't help but cry. It was a physical representation of what we're facing now. The bank took everything, and of course, there's still more to take--we're facing possible bankruptcy, maybe losing our home too. We won't know for a couple months, maybe longer than that.
Mostly, I was worried about Mike. How will he feel the first day he comes home with nothing to do, and nowhere he had to be? After waking up at 6 every morning, after coming home after 8 every night, after shaking hands and making small talk and selling groceries to generations.
And then nothing.