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After four generations, and against an influx of big-box competition, the Douro-based general store PG Towns has closed its doors for good. (Carlos Daniel Gawronski/iStockphoto)
After four generations, and against an influx of big-box competition, the Douro-based general store PG Towns has closed its doors for good. (Carlos Daniel Gawronski/iStockphoto)

General store near Peterborough closes its doors after 124 years Add to ...

For more than a century, the PG Towns general store navigated the winds of change.

In the 1940s, the store near Peterborough, Ont., stopped allowing people to pay for their purchases with butter and eggs. In the 1960s, it got its first cash register, riling some faithful customers who had liked getting a hand-written and itemized receipt.

Four generations of the Towns family made their living at the store. But the business in Douro hamlet has struggled with an influx of big-box stores nearby, and on Sunday closed its doors for good.

At its simplest, the shuttering of the store after 124 years can be ascribed to new competition, as well as rising hydro and wage costs. But this is also a story about the way small-town Canada is changing. Communities are being hollowed out as the country urbanizes. And the residents who remain are more mobile than in previous generations, allowing them to cast farther afield when doing their shopping.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” said J. Murray Jones, mayor of the amalgamated township of Douro-Dummer. “The page is turning. It leaves a hole, a hole in the community.”

The business – which locals refer to simply as “The Store” or “Towns” – was started in 1892 by Patrick George Towns. It was in Peterborough originally, said his grandson Mike Towns, and failed initially because he offered too much credit to people he didn’t know well enough. Within a few years, though, he was relaunching the business in Douro, taking over the site of one of the four local taverns.

Old photos of the building show a wide range of products advertised on the facade. You could buy anything from stoves to farm implements, patent medicines to school books to wedding presents.

The business became the core of the community. It was the spot where people shopped, picked up mail and stopped to chat. Decades of purchases were recorded in the old ledgers, which the family still keeps, offering a snapshot into life as the 19th century ended and the 20th began.

“It’s a very stable community here … and the people that were in those ledgers, their [descendants] still live around here,” Mr. Towns explained.

“On a certain date, maybe they got 10 cents worth of pepper. Tobacco was a very frequent purchase, it was 10 cents a plug, and they would buy flour and sugar by the hundred [weight]. And to offset the cost of these items, they would have brought in eggs or butter and traded.”

Other artifacts also survive. There are vintage product packagings, such as the wooden box that once held Weston’s bread, an antique set of scales and the trophy presented by the store on the occasion of the 1928 school fair.

Michelle Towns, the great-granddaughter of the founder, said they have heard a lot of interest in the historical items but wouldn’t sell them. “The value to our family is pretty priceless,” she said, adding that she would like to find a way to share these artifacts with the community.

Ms. Towns took over the store 11 years ago, along with her husband, Chris Coons, but gradually realized that it was unsustainable. He returned to his trade as a cabinet-maker last year and she, having remained a teacher throughout their ownership of the business, will be back in the classroom on Tuesday.

But first they wanted to mark the store’s final closing with a celebration. So on Sunday afternoon, they had music and speeches. It was intended to be a way to thank the customers who made the store into a key part of the community.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet day for a lot of people,” Ms. Towns said a few hours before the event. “It’s 124 years, so no one alive has lived in Douro without this store here.”

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