Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Fly Shop and the General Store

The Fly Shop and the General Store
Copyright 2009, Erik Helm

Although this story is a piece of fiction, it is based on my own observations. Fly shops, and indeed many retail establishments today seem to all look alike, kind of like fast food restaurants for anglers. They carry much of the same product, and seem to be arranged by the same person. Everything is in perfect rows and logos are everywhere. Contrast that with shops or stores that are more unique and have charm, such as the Redshed Flyshop in Peck Idaho, the old Angler’s Roost in new York, or even a general store, and I at least, yearn for a time when everything was not made ubiquitous. Bill Schreiber built the fly shop that I worked at and finally took over, and he cultivated a different look and feel. ‘Quaint and interesting’ might have been descriptions applied. ‘Unique’ certainly was. I also remember the joy of going into small town hardware and general stores in northern Wisconsin, and finding curious fishing lures from twenty years ago still on sale along side cap guns and toy bow and arrow sets. Places such as this are like miniature museums in their way. Nostalgia? Perhaps… but I still get all funny inside when I find a special place like this. A place where I can root around and find the odd item, chat with interesting and eccentric shop keepers, and waste a few hours apart from the plastic sameness of our modern world. I usually emerge with stuff I don’t need, but might in time become part of a memory.
Erik Helm, August 2009


It was what I call a ‘slow trip’.
I was meandering around some public waters on a fair to middling Atlantic Salmon river for a few days, not expecting much else but scenery and the odd fish, but the whole fishing experience seemed more important than numbers of fish as I grew older. I had hooked a nice fresh hen of around ten pounds or so, watched some eagles nest and fish, and drew a few sketches of the river that might make a subject for a nice watercolor.

The mid-day heat was not conducive to fishing, so I drove to the local town to augment my food supplies and perhaps see a bit of late 19th century main street architecture. The town was all I could have hoped for. Ancient brick facades with faded painted advertising on their sides stood in rank like forgotten soldiers. The ads were for products ridiculously outdated: chocolate soft drinks from the prohibition period, dubious patent medicines guaranteed to either cure you or kill you, and curiously named hair tonics. The street was only a block long, and was festively decorated with flowers and somewhat tattered flags. A lone dog wandered across the empty street near an old fire station. A few cars were parked here and there, mostly concentrated at the end of the block where a newly painted sign announced ‘Fly Shop.’

At the local grocery store, I purchased a few tins of soup, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of cold lemonade. The girl behind the register was as pretty and shy as the town itself.

I then made my way towards the end of the main street towards the fly shop. I love a good fly shop, and have been known to lose all track of time while fondling the various gadgets and gear of our obscure sport. The fly shop stood apart from the rest of the town in that it was newly constructed in the fashion of a log home. It was the only new structure on the street. Large inviting windows filled the front and were filled with tackle, while the only neon sign in town welcomed ‘Open’.

As I opened the door, the first thing that hit me was the cool breeze of the air conditioning. It smelled of fresh plastic, mothballs, and potpourri. A large flat screen television hung behind the counter playing some sort of fishing video that flashed boldly forth with glory shots of fish and anglers. It reminded me of a rock video, complete with an irritating hip-hop accompaniment. “Hey, like, can I help you?” offered a twenty something stereotype wearing a ball cap with a stylized toothy fish skeleton. “Thanks, but no” I replied, “Just poking around.” “No problem, Dude” the kid said, “but make sure to, like, check out the new flies we have and stuff.”

The shop was full to the brim with product segmented in like types: rods over there, fly bins poised at easy height, glass cases full of new shiny reels with colorful anodizing, an entire wall of fly fishing clothing lit individually by track lighting, pontoon boats suspended overhead, shelves of fly lines and accessories, a rotating display of aggressive looking polarized sunglasses, towers of leaders and tippet, and framed photographs of fish and trophy mounts. Above all, there were logos. Signs popped out everywhere, proclaiming the latest and greatest manufacturers, many which were new to me. The shop kid was busy ringing up a middle-aged man in a business suit who had a pile of purchases at the counter. I whistled inwardly when the total was given. I thought I might like a new pair of woolen socks, as some of mine had seen better days and were a bit war weary. The pair I found on the meticulously organized clothing wall was quite nice. They should be for fifty dollars I thought as I put them carefully back. I looked at the fly rods next. They were the best that money could buy. Expertly designed and light in the hand, they reminded me of colorful little performance sports cars lined up for sale. The only problem was that they were all the same. The local shop in my hometown carried the exact same rods. Placing two rods of the same line weight and length side by side, Only the manufacturer logo differed. The reel seats, guides, and even the graphite color were similar.
Turning to the fly bins, I found the display with the ‘must have’ flies for the local river. I read the display a second and third time to make certain, as I recognized none of the featured flies. These flies were constructed of plastic and tinsel, rabbit strips and flash, and sported names such as ‘Metal magnet’, ‘Ron’s killer’, and ‘Neon seducer’. I suddenly felt out of place and claustrophobic. Turning to leave, I bumped into a display rack of T-shirts bearing the slogans ‘Zip my fly!’, ‘Chrome member’, and ‘Salmon slayer.’

The heat that hit me full force as I exited the shop was welcome and appreciated.

I was walking back towards the car, when I passed a store with a neglected look. A weary sign proclaimed ‘General and Hardware store’. Paint peeled off in strips where there was paint, and a lazy dog slept next to a worn welcome mat. The place looked like a Norman Rockwell print that had been left in the sun for a hundred years. The display windows were full of dust, paint cans, a ladder, an old bait-casting rod, a faded American flag, several ancient copies of Popular Mechanics, and quite a few dead flies and moths. A hand printed sign hanging from a nail read ‘ Fishing tackel and bait.’ I smiled at the misspelling.

As I opened the door, a smell of dust and paint thinner mixed with rubber and pipe tobacco wafted out at me. Past the dimly lit aisles sat an old man at a counter piled up with odds and ends and papers. Indeed, he seemed to be buried in the debris of his business. He peered up from his newspaper, and looked at me curiously through coke-bottle glasses. “Can I help you, Sir?” he inquired. “Good afternoon.” I greeted. “I am just killing time and poking around… not looking for anything in particular.” “Whell,” the wizened man drawled out, “ If you’re not looking for anything special, you are bound to find it here. Take your time, nothing moves very fast in this store, especially the merchandise.” He chuckled at his own joke, and busied himself with his newspaper.

My eyes were slowly adjusting to the difference in light level, and as they did the store and its curiosities emerged. The shelving was hand made from whatever scrap had come to hand in God only knows what period. They were covered with mysterious boxes, Filson and Woolrich checkered shirts, denim bib-overalls, steel-toed work boots, rubber hip boots, bins of nails and screws, tins of grease, pinwheels, and other ephemera. At the end of the first aisle were hats that were out of place in time. Straw sun hats, woolen ball caps with built-in earmuffs, fedoras, and pork-pie hats were hung from a makeshift display of old wire coat hangers twisted together. Proceeding casually to the next aisle, I stirred up a cloud of dust that danced in the dimly filtered rays of the sun that shown through front window. In front of me were toys. Die cast farm implements and miniature tractors, plastic animal collections, boxes of army-men, dolls in country dresses, cap guns, metal lunch boxes, Indian head-dresses with crooked feathers, and rubber tomahawks, among other amusements, were lined up in no special order. Directly underneath was a shelf full of old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books mixed in with well-fingered comic books. I sniffed the delicious aroma of aging paper and ink.

At the very rear of the store was a vast wall of pegboard dedicated to fishing tackle of all kinds. Spinning and bait casting rods were mixed together. Old level wind reels sat upon their cardboard boxes. Wooden plugs and wire leaders were tangled together. Silver minnows dangled from a peg, and dardevle spoons and Mepps spinners hung from cardboard. Plastic or bubble-wrapped merchandise was conspicuously absent. Over in a corner of the pegboard was a shelf of fly reels. Automatic reels: Pflugers and Shakespeare models sat oiled and ready. A fiberglass fly rod stood along side an early Fenwick graphite model. Oiled braided lines spilled out of their tins, their lids askew. A container of Mucilin leaked onto a box of tying supplies. Galvanized tins held split shot, and cardboard cards held little bags of hooks. Off to the side, half obscured by an old wicker creel, was a stained off- white cardboard display of flies. I held my breath as I moved closer. They were full dress salmon flies. I removed the whole display card and read the inscription. “Hand tied Salmon flies by Hardy Brothers, England” it read. There were a dozen or so remaining on the card. Each was held by a single staple that enveloped the hook. There were Jock Scotts, Green Highlanders, Silver Doctors, and Thunder and Lightings, all probably tied sometime in the nineteen-fifties. I had indeed found an unexpected treasure, just as the proprietor had predicted. Written in black crayon on the top of the card were the words ‘Salmon flies - .50 cents each.’ I decided the true place for these flies would be in the water in time for the evening bite, so I walked slowly to the counter.

In front of the counter and to one side was an authentic red and white metal Coca-Cola cooler, filled with frost and returnable shorty bottles of Coke. Another cooler partially covered with a slab of wood stood nearby, with a hand-made sign proclaiming “Nightcrawlers, ten for a quarter.” On the counter near the old cash register was a display of pocketknives, and I remembered my father purchasing a Barlow knife for my tenth birthday just like the one displayed. I opened the cola cooler and set a bottle on the counter along with the card of flies.

“Found something, eh?” the proprietor chuckled. “That’ll be six dollars and a quarter.” He wrote up the receipt by hand. “Not much call for old flies like them anymore. Not since that other new fishing shop opened. Hardware don’t sell too well nohow…that super-mart on the highway takes most of that now.”

“Been awhile since I have been to a store like this,” I said. “Brings a smile to one’s face.” “Yea… he he… times don’t change too much around here, got no reason too.”
“Thank you for that” I said, offering him my hand.
“Say mister,” he muttered, scrunching up his great white eyebrows in concentration, “You fishin’ the river for salmon?”
I nodded affirmatively, telling him I was camped near the public water.
“I haint fished it in awhile ‘cause of my gouty leg, but I can tell ya about a secret hole.” The old man proceeded to describe a hidden spot between known beats. A little ledge-rock outcropping hidden underwater that, unless you knew it was there, would never seem to be fish holding water.

As I emerged from the old building with its sagging porch and sleepy dog, I saw a European sports car pull away from the fly shop, the back seat loaded with new gear.

That evening, I celebrated with a cigar the beautiful buck salmon that I caught and released in the out of the way ledge-rock run the old man had described. It took one of the little Green Highlanders from his store almost casually, and then went berserk, leaping all over the river.

Sometimes the best that life has to offer comes behind an old crooked door, or in a musty box. It is given or sold to us by people as odd as a Dickens character. I would have it no other way.


  1. Erik,

    Nice nostalgia piece. We have two "general store" stores in my vicinity. The one is a fairly new store, C-A-L Ranch, which has about ten stores scattered around northern Nevada and northern Utah and in Idaho. It carries: Animal Health & Feed, Candy & Snacks, Clothing & Footwear, Farm & RANCH Supplies, Hardware & Home Repair, Housewares & Gifts, Lawn & Garden, Pet Food & Supplies, Power Equipment, Saddlery & Tack, Sporting Goods, Tools.

    But the even better store is called Smithfield Implement (see picture here: They carry the same types of things, but they've got everything stuffed in there, not on big open displays or racks. The creaky wood floors, etc. They don't carry much fly fishing tackle, but they carry regular fishing stuff. They're also modern enough to know the going prices, so you aren't going to find some killer deal, but the feel of shopping there is priceless (bought the first pair of cowboy boots I ever owned there 30 years ago and bought my last pair of cowboy boots there last year).

    Thanks for the trip down *imagined* memory lane.

  2. Very nice. Excellent imagery. Well done!

  3. Another winner, really enjoying your short stories. There truly are places like that.. Wanderlust seeks them out and is most comfortable after stumbling upon and through their passageways. Thanks for the read.

  4. Thank you for the comments. It can get a little lonely in idea land.

    In northern Wisconsin there are a myriad of small towns, most dating back to the mid to late 1800s. Each town was self sufficient. Main street and the few streets that intersected it had everything a citizen of the town could need. Fast forward into the 1970s, and as a small boy, I entered these stores as my family vacationed. The stores had not changed. Unlike the city, older merchandise was not put on clearance every year, instead, it just collected dust on the shelves until someone like me took a fancy to it. The stores all seemed to run by a colorful personality as well. Cross this with my experiences with fly shops, and the story wrote itself. Those stores are still there to be experienced. WalMart has not destroyed them all.


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