Miller's was a favorite after-school spot (and sometimes, when the local Catholic school was still open, a favorite during school spot if severe nuns in penguin habits didn't catch you first) of neighborhood children, who with less than a dollar could fill a small paper bag with an assortment of inexpensive sweets that you will never find in any convenience store - "flying saucers" which had fruit-flavored pellets inside, candy cigarettes and bubble-gum cigarettes wrapped in paper and coated with powdered sugar so that, when you blew on them, it looked as though smoke were emitting from the end; smarties, red and purple fish for a penny each, whistle pops and more. Kids would stand in front of the display, solemnly and thoughtfully pointing out what they wanted in an off-hand knowledge of temporary power while a patient Mrs. Miller filled their bags. In August, Miller's was the only place to go for notebooks, folders, pens and other school supplies, and children would troop in and out (usually having to step over a friendly collie lying like a large shag rug on the garishly painted hardwood floor - Mrs. Miller always seemed to have a collie in the store).
When I was a little girl, many of my birthday presents from older siblings came from Miller's, which afforded my brothers and sisters gifts within their budget - a glass piggy bank, paint-by-numbers kits, paper dolls or a tin train - the type of toys that a child delights in playing with, quickly breaking and replacing. My mother still has a set of glass salt-and-pepper shakers (I broke one a couple of years back, and was more regretful than when I dropped a more valuable specimen of her wedding china; she wasn't) and a couple of soup bowls from the store; while Mrs. Miller proved a friend in need if my grandmother needed thread or wrapping paper, or when we needed outdoor toys for our swimming pool during the summers. Beautifully decorated for the holiday season by her young assistant, the lit windows during a snowy December evening looked as decidedly picturesque as a Norman Rockwell post card.
A person might ask what's so special about a common five-and-dime that had been doing less and less business over the past couple of years, remaining a favorite only with schoolchildren. The answer to that might be that five-and-dimes aren't so common anymore. Miller's was, for me, a symbol of a small-town living I never knew, a leftover from a vanished era seen only through my parents' tales of their youth - a time of fairy-tale community, like something from an overly sentimental rerun of The Waltons. I was never certain it really existed, but I enjoyed hearing the stories.
Once upon a time, taking a passenger train into the city was a big treat, especially during Christmas, when store windows were beautifully dressed and Santa Claus had come to town. Once upon a time, anything you needed in the way of clothing, furniture, household appliances, groceries, etc., could be obtained in your own hometown. Once children walked to school each day, found summer jobs serving ice cream in local dairies and traveled only a few blocks to go to the movies on the weekend, and everyone knew everyone else.
Now, the county is our hometown, and a county is our neighborhood. We have strips of highway built up with chains of specialty stores. Passenger trains are a thing of the past and people further retreat into the isolation of their own cars. Wal-mart and convenience stores replace the small, family-owned "Mom and Pop" businesses, while shopping malls house much of the clothing and furniture we buy, creating with their side-by-side stores, food courts and entertainment "squares" a mock sense of community and an illusion of a lost hometown solidarity.
Time marches on, and mass media cuts down on the need to get the latest news from over the proverbial back yard fence. We can't keep the world from changing, nor can we elect not to adapt to the changes, and although we may strive to maintain community through church and school, through town celebrations and holiday parades, the time of the five-and-dime is probably past irrevocably. As much as we may miss them and want them, it really is difficult to make a go of them now.
Now I live in New York City, and while I've grown used to that busy place so full of youth and excitement, I have also learned to appreciate a smaller, slower way of living - a way of living where a bag of penny candy is as individual as the person who buys it, and where the person selling it to you always sees you as an old friend's child.