Frontlines

Don Gray at work: stil delivering

David Folster February 19 1979
Frontlines

Don Gray at work: stil delivering

David Folster February 19 1979

Don Gray at work: stil delivering

Frontlines

It’s about noon as Don Gray’s mobile store pulls up at a white-shingled house in Collina Corner, New Brunswick. Mrs. Evelyn Muir, a retired schoolteacher in a mauve sweater over a green dress, has been waiting and was just beginning to fret because he’s a bit late. “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” she says. “It would mean I’d have to depend on my neighbors if I wanted to get out and shop.”

Gray had fallen slightly behind schedule as he carefully guided his aging International truck over the icy roads of southeastern New Brunswick’s rolling farm country. In the insulated wooden cab behind him is his stock: shelves crammed with bread, oranges, canned goods, toothpaste and other staple items, plus a cooler filled with fresh meat. At one time people like him were a regular sight over these roads but now Don Gray is the last, an anachronism in the era of the supermarket—a rural peddler making his rounds.

Customers like Mrs. Muir are old-fashioned farm folk with little interest in socalled “convenience” food.

For them, Gray’s mini-grocery on wheels is just the convenience they need.

“He’s got most everything but whole milk,” she declares. “He’s got beef and pork and if you want chicken, he’ll order it. And he had turkeys galore at Christmas.”

At 63, Don Gray has been in the business for nearly 45 years and now, even with | his competition gone, he’s° just surviving in it. “There’s | a place up here, I sold to£ them for years,” he says as w he resumes his rounds. “But the price of meat went up last spring so they stopped buying from me.” The fluctuating cost of meat is one occupational hazard; another is the spread of home freezers. “It used to be I’d miss only one or two houses; now it’s just the opposite.”

Still, three mornings a week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, wearing the fresh white grocer’s apron his wife hands him every day, he sets out from his home near Norton to call on about 60 customers along one of his three 70-mile routes. To some, he’s virtually an essential service. “We have no conveyance of

our own,” says Ruth Vail in Upper Belleisle Creek. “We’d have to hire someone to take us 15 or 16 miles to Sussex to get groceries.”

At one house Gray asks a man if he needs help carrying his groceries inside—“This man had a heart attack,” he explains in an aside. Over coffee in another farm kitchen a longtime customer, Mrs. Agnes Pope, utters the definitive phrase: “Oh, Don is just like one of the family.”

These days he is the only visitor in

some of his customers’ lives. Once he discovered a woman whose wood fire had gone out two days earlier and she had become immobile, her feet frozen. “But she knew I’d be there at a certain time, and that kept her going.” He started the fire and called for help. But the woman died a few days later, after gangrene set in.

Gray started his business in May, 1934, putting $10 down on a secondhand Model T selling for $22.50. For years he peddled only meat, leaving the grocery trade to a spate of competitors. “I never handled groceries until these fellows went out of business.” At one time he longed to be a carpenter instead of a travelling grocery-man. Even now there are days when he would prefer to be out plowing land (he’s a former New Brunswick champion plowman and finished fourth in the national finals in 1972) or coaching local hockey. He still instructs young plowmen, but his days as a hockey mentor are over. “I couldn’t sport and work all night too.” After a full day on the road, he must spend up to three hours restocking the truck at night, getting ready for the next day’s run. And for all this effort, “I don’t make any more money today than I did nine or 10 years ago. I have a hard time to make a go of it.” Gray’s next-to-last stop before a lunch-pail dinner by the side of the road is for a couple living in a squat hut on an acre of ground they rent for $2 a month. John T. Coombs is “going on 78” and says he has been “a lumberjack, a millman and an old farmer.” Don Gray, he says, is “an awful good man to deal with—he’d thrust a person from one cheque to another.” Coombs’s life is as basic as they come. “As soon as my cheque comes in, I give it to him. He takes what I owe him, and if there’s anything left he gives it back to me.”

In this age of volume merchandising, loss leaders and computerized supermarket checkouts, such simple, logical, honorable transactions are rare. Nearly as rare as having a peddler who brings the groceries to your door. “I suppose I won’t be able to do that much longer,” says Gray. “I sort of hang on.”

David Folster