Small town general store shows big heart

Serving community, oil patch workers | Cromer Valley Store in southwestern Manitoba has the goods — or will order them

CROMER, Man. — When a town has a First Street West and doesn’t have a Second Street West, it’s safe to say it is really small.

Cromer, population 30, has a First Street East, a First Street West, a United Church, a natural ice hockey rink, a shuttered Manitoba Pool Elevators and not much else.

Even with its small size, Cromer has retained something that dozens of prairie towns, hamlets and villages lost decades ago: a thriving general store.

The Cromer Valley Store, a modern building with tan metal siding and a red roof, stands out in a community where most structures were probably built two or three generations ago.

During one recent afternoon, three flatbed trucks and several pick-up trucks were parked outside the store.

In a matter of 20 minutes, about 25 customers entered the store, which features an eight-metre ceiling, wide aisles and an odd assortment of merchandise.

Trailer hitches, 36-inch wrenches, flame retardant overalls and steel toe boots were on display, along with Ritz crackers, gum and toothpaste.

Mark Toews, who has owned and operated the hardware and grocery store for more than three decades, said he has always stocked a diverse array of products.

However, he has substantially altered the merchandise mix over the last five years in response to the oil boom in southwestern Manitoba.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said.

“The oil patch has moved in here. That’s been our life saver…. It’s luck of the draw. We didn’t move to the oil patch, the oil patch moved to us.”

Toews and his son-in-law, Kent Duncalfe, who co-owns the store, took advantage of their good fortune last year by building a 6,000 sq. foot building next to the old 2,160 sq. foot store.

Duncalfe said the investment was worth the risk.

“It has drawn more customers. There’s more room for people to shop,” he said during a tour of the old store, which is now used for storage.

“Before … in this small area, when you had four people (inside) it was getting crowded.”

Toews, who was born in Alberta, moved to Cromer with his family when he was a year old. His father farmed in the area and bought the Cromer grocery and hardware store in 1977. Toews partnered with his dad in 1980 and they built a new store, which is now the old store, in 1981.

Toews, who has lived in the small community for the last 54 years, joked about the size of Cromer.

“When our family used to leave for the weekend it cut the population in half.”

Cromer may be tiny but it is located in the heart of Manitoba’s oil industry.

Two petroleum firms, Enbridge and Tundra Oil & Gas, have tank farms just north of Cromer and hundreds of oil patch workers pass through town each day. Still, watching Toews and Duncalfe engage with customers, it’s evident their success isn’t solely based on location, location, location.

When Murray Downing, a farmer from Reston, Man., walked through the door, Toews and Duncalfe bantered with him as if he was an old friend of the family.

When the farmer inquired about a set of socket wrenches he had or-dered a few weeks earlier, Duncalfe asked Downing if the set was a surprise Christmas gift for his wife.

“I like to think we’re still community oriented. Our community is the heart of our business and they’ve been faithful to us,” said Duncalfe, who grew up near Birnie, Man., and moved to Cromer five years ago after marrying Toews’ daughter.

“The oil patch definitely helps us but the community does as well.”

Young men working in Manitoba’s oil industry could easily buy clothing, boots, tools and other gear at the larger communities in the region, such as Brandon, Virden and Melita.

Yet they come to Cromer Valley Store because Toews and Duncalfe provide what they want at a fair price, including fast food.

In the back corner of the spacious store, two employees prepare pizza, cheese buns, sandwiches, pastries and sausage rolls five days a week in the in-store bakery.

“We do our own sausage roll. You should try one, you’ll never be the same,” Toews said with a laugh.

While the food lures in dozens of oil workers every day, the store doesn’t sell another staple of the convenience store trade: cigarettes.

Toews said it’s because he is a Mennonite, and smoking isn’t part of his faith.

Besides food, the store also offers an embroidery service to companies in the region. An employee used an embroidery machine in the old store to sew the name of an auction mart into a hat.

Duncalfe said they provide embroidered jackets, work shirts and other items to oil field firms, to give to their employees or use them as promotional tools.

Duncalfe will slowly take over the store over the next year or so as Toews prepares to do other things with is life.

“I’m going to step back,” Toews said while sitting behind a desk in the store office.

“My wife and I will likely do some mission outreach in our church.”

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that Toews will completely walk away from a store that has occupied 35 years of his life.

“Talking to Kent the other day, I can probably come back here and work whenever I want.”

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