Favorite Things: Symon’s General Store

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This is not so much a favorite thing as it is a favorite place. One that holds a treasure trove of favorite things, as all good General Stores do. I know this means you can’t run out and check out one of my favorite shops for yourself unless you come visit. And nope, they don’t sell online (but they do Ship Anywhere).

That’s one of the things I love about Symon’s General Store in Petoskey, just across the bay. The old-fashioned, the throw-back to another era—the old coke machine, the tin ceiling, the candy in jars—combined with the most current, hot, you-want-it-badly treats. Here on the corner of Howard and Lake is a fromagier, God bless it, to mollify the spoiled eater in me who got to grab hers from Cowgirl Creamery any day of the week at the Ferry Market, for a time. There are spices galore, olives, good coffee, oils and vinegars, croissants too, warm from the oven with cheese and ham peeking out from the ends. Not to mention the kind of salesperson who is absent any concern I’m out concept-stealing and says, sure, feel free to take pictures. Enjoy it.

As much as I can be a Miracle Mile devotee (at least the way that shopping lane once was, before the ho-hum chains took over), and I love a great handbag as much as the next girl, I’ve also got plenty of The Waltons in me. Mary Ellen, Erin, Elizabeth, I loved them all, with their cotton dresses and their trips to the General Store to pick up a licorice whip or a pencil. That would have been John Boy, going for the pencil. John Boy is my General Store hero, and I think of him with some frequency. He wrote about the everyday of his family and his life on Walton’s Mountain and knew that was art, and he tells me it’s just fine if I do the same.

Now, I may have paid more than I will admit for a little foil pocket of za’atar at Symon’s (the back of the pouch reads: adds a cosmopolitan touch to any dish), but the main thing is that they were the only shop that had za’atar when I had none in my pantry and needed it, pronto.

I hope you have a favorite General Store, or something akin, where you live. One that isn’t a Las Vegas rendition of a General Store, with hollow marble pillars and hollow…everything. Even if it’s in a strip mall, no matter. This isn’t me pontificating about shopping local. It’s just that after a season of shopping online (not strictly, but certainly some) to send with a clickity click click, I’m a little internet-weary.

This is about enjoying something authentic, something favorite, something you can get only if you go there.

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  1. Marian P. Montoya says:

    Depends on whether you feel comfortable ordering something via the web or if you want to touch and feel it first in a store. There are a number of good pencils that fit your criteria that you can only get via the web. In the technical drawing aisle of OfficeMax you can get reasonably nice, but kind of expensive, Helix (thought the name on the pencil says Anchor). The vanishing point can be a bit finicky. Another nice, all metal one, comes in a Helix drawing kit for about $10. The pencil itself is my favorite store-bought technical pencil.

  2. kristin says:

    We all LOVE Symons. Just last night I was looking at pictures of my sun-kissed kids, post-Kilwins, beating the barrels out front like drums… (***insert sighs for summer***).

    I never think to look anywhere else – but it’s the only place I get Baba au Rhum as a treat for my father.in.law.

  3. Jerry Wakeen says:

    Great visit to an old store, reminds me of my youth.

    My father and his father owned and ran a grocery store in La Crosse, Wisconsin, we lived in the back and could go into the store’s back room (dad’s office) through either of two doors. That back room also held a dozen or so 50 lb sacks of flour with colorful patterned sacks that could be used for dress material. It also had a safe and that’s where dad stored the imported items he got from Lebanon.

    To adequately impress you with this primitive way of live read on:
    1.There were small barrels of black olives, you scooped olives into a carton that is the same as what you get take out Chinese food in today.

    2. Vinegar came in much larger barrels, exactly like the one shown next to the door and coke machine in your photo (the barrel was laid on its side, outside the store on the sidewalk, a rubber hose was used to siphon the vinegar into the basement of the store into one gallon jugs, the hose went through a small plugged hole in the side of the store, etc.) More than once I got a mouth full of vinegar when trying to start the siphon.

    3. There was a kerosine pump in the rear of the store where you could use a hand crank to fill containers. The pump had a return pipe such that if you cranked the handle without a container present the kerosine would just return to the holding tank in the basement. We kids played a lot with the pump and never lost a drop.

    4. Of course there was an electric coffee grinder where you could empty your bag of coffee into a hopper, place the same bag under the grinder and refill it with ground coffee, any granularity you wanted.

    5. When we ran out of pre-filled 1/2 pint chocolate (or regular) milk bottles we would wash out empty glass containers and fill them again from a larger quart container. Dad had extra circular cardboard caps that we used to seal the newly filled milk bottles. Those small 1/2 pint milk bottle packages were popular after mass each morning for those that had fasted and received Communion, they took the milk and food to school where they had breakfast before classes started. (The store was “kitty corner” to the Catholic church and a half block from the associated school).

    6. There was a refrigerated long display case, similar to that shown in your photo with the cheese, but dad had a “butcher” employed who filled the case with lunch meats, cheese, pork and beef cuts and of course we ground our own hamburger.

    7. There was a “butcher block” at the corner of the meat department where the meats were cut up. No sneeze shield, no glass barrier, if you put your hand on the block as you rounded the corner you would have a palm full of blood, or the like. He also butchered Deer for people during the hunting season. Samples were handed over the top of the display case if you wanted to try a lunch meat, baloney, or cheese. The same meat slicer was used to cut up lunch meats, cheese, cabbage for cole slaw, etc.

    8. Dad used an old heater core for an air conditioner, placed it up high, ran cold water through it continuously and into a drain with a fan behind it. I guess it took the temperature down a few degrees, perhaps as much as a modern 4000 btu unit!

    9. Farmers would bring in their eggs in 30 dozen wooden boxes, 15 dozen on each side of a separator. Because the eggs varied from one yolk to about 5 yolks and customers would always pick out the largest eggs dad devised a method of weighing the eggs we sold, he priced the eggs by the pound (and the returned egg carton was worth a few cents credit). The Farmers were also paid by the pound and they usually took it out in trade. I didn’t realize how creative this was till I was much older.

    10. Well I could go on forever but if you read this far and believed all of that you are a kindly person because it is all true! Today between the EPA, OSHA, the Health Department, etc., dad wouldn’t have lasted long. On the other hand he managed to continue selling aspirin when he was told that he couldn’t because he was not a drug store. They actually cited him once for continuing to sell aspirin, I forget the outcome but he never stopped selling aspirin. 🙂 Stubborn those Lebanese!

    best, Jerry

  4. Jenny B says:

    Maureen is is such a pleasure reading your posts. Thank you for some great inspiration in 2012 and for what’s ahead from you in 2013. I think it’s great that you featured a place this time – and how appropriate it would be Symon’s … I can remember when they carried pistachio nuts in a BIG tin can and my dad would bring them home – a REAL special treat as you couldn’t get them everywhere like you can today. As a matter of fact – I don’t think I have EVER seen the red shelled pistachio nuts sold anywhere BUT Symon’s – if they even have them anymore? good memories …

  5. Diane Nassir (My maternal grandmother was an Abowd) says:

    By all means, yes, so glad you pay more for za’atar at Symon’s in order to keep them in business–a miracle they even have it!! And, yes, we lived in Reno-Carson City, NV, for 30 years and frequented Virginia City, a renovated, historic mining town, in the mountains above Reno-Carson, and there was a wonderful general store there that looks just like Symon’s. Thank you for bringing back wonderful memories with your columns-your are a gift to us all that keeps on giving!

  6. Greg Carpenter says:

    The only place in town that carries Tamarind paste. And Mary Jane candies.

  7. Gena says:

    Under the dropped ceiling, in the original (1965) renovation of the 117 E. Allegan building that housed the law firm of Abood, Abood & Abood, was a tin ceiling just like the one above in your photo. (I think it was eventually torn out in subsequent renovations, sad to say). Thanks for the memories.

  8. Terri Kuebler says:

    I have lived in San Francisco for 35 years now but I grew up in Petoskey. I took care of Chandler for Tom and Lynne when I was 15, 16, and 17. I am so glad the store is still there and doing well.