Eudora Welty’s great short essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing in vivid details instead of telling readers what to feel. As for the store, it’s a realm of children on errands and of a grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.”
Early on are these foreshadowing thematic lines: “Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.”
One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. They break the illusion of normalcy, though they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as all the objects and people and activities on her store trips are connected with the adventure of going there. Except she didn’t think the store had an ongoing story of its own.
The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and “news of people coming to hurt one another.”
The climax comes at the end this way, its impact felt and lingering because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.
Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain. Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes:
“The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”
(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)