Almost all of the shelves are bare now. They are so close to closing. The Newfoundland Store has been at the corner of Willow and Clifton practically since before your nanny and poppy were born. And now we are the ones who witness its last days.
The shelves. They were built more than 50 years ago, very strong and rectangular and since then coat after coat after coat of white glossy paint, like the old saying: if it moves, salute it; if it doesn't, paint it. The shelves go up almost all the way to the ceiling. They held cans and packets and bottles of hard-to-get goods and elixirs.
Shopping at the Newfoundland Store was a bit like a staycation. No beeps and squeaks of scanners, no hollow voice intoning unexpected item in bagging area. Here there was the sway of the needle on analog weigh machines. Exotic goods. The iconic Purity crackers. Purity syrup. Hard bread. Butter crackers. Fraser Farm Gravy and Meatballs. Old Tyme pease pudding. Lots from the Purity from down home. Jam Jams, hard crackers, lemon biscuits. Peppermint lumps. And cases of Newfoundland pop: Crush pineapple or sweet birch beer.
They didn't always sell Purity crackers and syrup and whatnot at regular grocery stores; now they do, but the Newfoundland Store was once the only game in town.
The goods were never crammed willy-nilly into the shelves. They were arranged, in ordered pyramids and tidy walls. Many of these things, cans and bags and packets, of lovely design, all facing front, in a terrific order, the labels' beautiful splats of colour against those white made-for-eternity shelves and cubbies. In our disordered world, a bit of order and simplicity.
Oh, the window signs! Dozens of them. Beautiful introduction to this small world of bygone comforting order. White paper signs hung like tidy laundry on string, horizontal, in the whole of the windows with black stencilled offerings, mostly one word centred in each of three lines, of some of the goods within. The traditional gothic block stencil letters. NFLD SALT WATER. SALT MACKERAL FILLETS. WHOLE SALT HERRING. NFLD GINGER COOKIES. The minimalist black and white signs, with the white shelves, and the white vintage scales, made for a wonderful atmosphere.
The thing about shopping at the Newfoundland Store is that it was a bit of time travel, back to days of more order and the simplicity of fewer choices. No dozens of choices of dish-washing soap or tinned soup or peanut butter.
But this is not a grievous tale one of a small store being squeezed out by the chain stores. The owner, Pat Yarn, is 85 now. Her husband, Clifford, who used to run the place, died back in 2011. Time to slow down a bit. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she's 85 and not getting around as well as she used to. Let her sit down.
Buzzing around the shop for the last 55 years has been Dave Harnett. Did you catch that? He's been serving the likes of you for 55 years. Only employee the store ever had. Started when he was 10, helping anywhere a 10-year-old could. Stocking the shelves.
On a recent glum day, the Halifax singer-songwriter and event planner Don Brownrigg is bringing armloads of stuff downstairs from the huge apartment above the store. He is working alone. The building has been sold, and he has to go. Ages ago, the apartment was known as a place where out-of-town musicians, artists or locals also, could stay for next to nothing. Each of the four bedrooms was rented out and someone or other held the lease.
Twelve years ago it was Brownrigg who got the lease and gradually, as roommates left, he did not replace them. "It allowed me to be poor for many years," he says, "in that great area of Halifax. I always had lots of room for folks who needed it."
Brownrigg has great memories of Clifford Yarn. "He'd sit in that old shitty chair with stuffing breaking out, behind the cash, looking out the window." The store opened at nine in the morning but Yarn was there by seven. The store was his passion. The chair is not there anymore.
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Tibb's Eve is a Newfoundland bacchanalia celebrated on December 23. Essentially, it came about as an excuse to start drinking two days earlier than the 25th, back when Advent was a serious, sober time. Every year Brownrigg cooked a big Jiggs dinner, sort of a boiled dinner (with salted beef and potatoes, carrot, cabbage, turnip) like what might be cooked for a Sunday supper. Lots of other folks cooked Tibb's dinners. "I sometimes imagined the store was a front for a drug business—it was steady but slow business," says Brownrigg, "but on big boiled dinner days, when folks needed their brisket or hard bread, the line would be right out the door. Flat out."
And in the back room, pails of the fish and pork and wet stuff. Same stencilled numbers: THICK FAT PORK $4.99LB 1100KG. SALT HERRING $2.99LB. WHOLE SALT TURBOT $7.99LB $17.62KG. Pat Yarn comes into the store every day now, tidying up 10,000 loose ends. She sits in the back room with the newspaper and an adding machine, sorting through papers. Lots of papers. Colour TV bolted high on the wall. Kettle. Small freezers and fridges. More white shelves. A visitor asks when the last day of the store will be. She finds a calender somewhere in the piles and has a look. "Thirty-first," she says. The end of January, days from now.
Dave Harnett isn't going to stay home if he can help it. "I'm too young," he says. "I'd go crazy." The ideal thing for Dave would be if someone else opened a Newfoundland kind of store. "I would love to work there," he says. "I'd bring a thousand customers with me."
Stephen Archibald is a Halifax guy who notices many wonderful things around town, many things that are endangered species, and writes about them in his blog, Noticed In Nova Scotia, with lots of photographs. He notices the Newfoundland Store and writes: "It's encouraging to come upon modernist houses inserted comfortably into older neighbourhoods. Reviewing my photos, I was surprised that the old-style Newfoundland Store was a good friend, in scale and form, to a young modern house a couple of blocks up the street." This is another thing about the store. The building does slip so nicely into place in the neighbourhood, without fanfare. It's a great fit.
On a recent afternoon the shelves out front at the store were mostly bare except for some Purity products. There were 14 packages of cream crackers. Three of the hard bread, one of the sweet bread. Two bottles of orange syrup. On the counter, copies of the February issue of Down Home magazine are free for the taking. No charge. Out back, some packets of Nickerson salt cod bits and a few buckets of various fishy things.
It's fine to miss some place you've never been to. Sometimes it's enough to know that some place exists, or some one, or some animal, and seems to carry on and on, and even though you never go there yourself, all the same you are glad for the good it is, and for the good it does. And then it's not there anymore. The Newfoundland Store is only a few days away from extinction, as is so much of our world. We will not see the likes of it again.
Jane Kansas lives in Dartmouth and she should have gone to the Newfoundland Store more often.