In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.
These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here.
Today's spotlight is on SooToday's Alex Flood, whose story '‘Very emotional’: Historic general store closes up shop' was published on September 7, 2023.
Here's the original story if you need to catch up:
A long-running chapter inside one of the area’s most-storied structures has come to an end.
For the past 42 years, Merv and Kim Brooks have overseen the operations of Little Rapids General Store, a quaint but historic shop located just a few minutes north of Thessalon.
Famous for their delectable cheeses, savoury meats, and refreshing ice cream, the owners announced earlier this year — with heavy hearts — that they would be closing the doors for good to spend more time with family. Sept. 8 was their last day in business.
“It’s very emotional,” Merv told SooToday. “I knew it would be to a certain degree. This place is generational; it’s been here for so long. But it’s time.”
Widely regarded as one of the most popular attractions along the north shore, the store has maintained its traditional look and neighbourly atmosphere while other like-minded establishments have gone under in recent years.
The building was originally constructed in 1890 as a family home with a general store attached to the front — a once-popular design that is rarely seen anywhere today.
Despite pandemics, world wars, and recessions, the store managed to stay afloat throughout a roller coaster of worldwide events during the early and mid-1900s.
Eventually, the Brooks couple came into the picture. But owning a general store wasn’t something they imagined doing after getting married.
“I met Kim at Sault College when I was taking aviation,” he says. “We got married and used to come down here all the time on holidays. It was such a beautiful community, and it just felt good being around here.”
“I’d come into the store and talk to the former owner, John MacLean, all the time. It was up for sale in 1981, and we were looking to settle down. We didn’t know a thing about running a store, and we didn’t have any money."
Kim's dad John McPhee helped the young couple with some of their finances and backed them up on the mortgage, which helped the Brooks purchase the store.
“Everybody was so happy we took it over — they couldn’t believe it. I was a pilot at the time, and we didn’t know anything about business whatsoever. There was a lot of fixing up we had to do. We just dove into it.”
In addition to becoming first-time business owners 42 years ago, Merv and Kim simultaneously started their family life in the same space, raising their three daughters in the living quarters around the storefront.
“It was just a nice way of life,” Merv says.
Once their daughters left the nest, the Brooks separated their work and home life when they moved out of the living space 18 years ago and built a small place on Basswood Lake.
Around that time, the couple discovered they needed more room for inventory, which sparked their decision to open Forestland in downtown Thessalon.
In the weeks following their announcement to close Little Rapids, Brooks says he has heard countless stories from loyal customers.
“We’ve been here a long time, but the store has been here even longer, so people are connecting way back,” he says. “People walk in and will say they’ve been transported back 100 years. You’re really in another world when you walk in here and close the door.”
“I find everybody pulls up, looks up and smiles. It’s like the building is smiling back at them.”
While the general store has undergone some necessary changes to keep up with the times, the Brooks family has made it a priority to keep some of the building’s historic fixtures around, including their original till, a hand-operated kerosene pump, and an assortment of hanging memorabilia from the ceiling.
Merv has also maintained hand-written bills and has kept a countless number of old copies — some dating back to the early 1900s.
“It’s like an archive,” he says. “Those names are of people who are likely buried in the nearby cemetery now.”
Among Brooks’ favourite memories of the store was when he actually wasn’t there.
During a summer around 20 years ago, a massive thunderstorm rolled through and knocked out power around Thessalon. Owning the only gas station in the area at the time, he recalls helping out a desperate gentleman in an unconventional way.
“Around 3:30 this one afternoon, my phone rings and somebody was at the store and really needed gas,” he recalls. “We were closed because the power was out, and I was at home sipping a second glass of wine, so I didn’t think I should drive.”
“I told him how to break into the building since we always keep a spare can of gas. I explained to him how to get in and grab it, and that he could come by another time and figure out the payment. I didn’t ask what his name was or for his credit card information or anything. But he was able to go into the shed and grab the gas. He came by a few weeks later and I got to meet him then.”
While that easygoing style of running a business is virtually unheard of today, Brooks says he’s proud of moments like that one because it’s helped define what Little Rapids General Store has meant to the thousands of customers who have walked through the front door.
“People really connect with this store, and they’re just so happy it’s still here when they come by, which has been nice,” he says. “It really is a way of life.”
A recent social media post by the general store, which included the announcement of their final day of operation, ignited dozens of comments from loyal customers who took the opportunity to reminisce of days gone by.
“This place has been part of my fishing trip memories since I can barely remember as a kid, and Merv always seemed to remember who I was all those years,” one man wrote.
“Growing up, all my summers spent on Big Basswood and dad bringing us for summer sausage and ice cream were some of my favourite childhood memories,” another woman said. “I’m so glad I was able to bring my own children there.”
The store is currently on the market for $129,000. The search for a suitable buyer is still active, according to Brooks.
“We’ve had around 25 or 30 showings,” he says. “It’s a fixer upper, but we don’t want someone to change the store. I want to be able to come back here as a customer and get some cheese and meats still.”
“It’s an original store and there’s just none like this left. It’s the connection — people just don’t want it gone.”
While the future of the store is uncertain, one thing remains guaranteed.
When Little Rapids General Store closes for the final time on Sept. 8, Brooks will inevitably bid farewell to his final customer the same way he’s said goodbye to every shopper since 1981: “Thanks for shopping at the general store.”