Coalville's Summit Merc an old-fashioned general store
Coalville • The yellow-brick 105-year-old Summit Merc that graces the Main Street of Summit County's seat seems like a store from a different era. It sells a little bit of everything, offers home delivery and hand-cut meat and even allows loyal customers to run up a credit tab.
How can such an old-fashioned third-generation family run store compete with the big box stores just down the Interstate in Park City?
Just ask Coalville resident Carrie Willoughby.
She needed a fitting for a broken sprinkler system Wednesday. Though the Merc doesn't officially open until 8 a.m., she knew that owner Jim Blonquist, 61, usually shows up around 7 a.m. He let her in. Alas, the store was sold out of what she needed. Blonquist told her to wait a second, hopped into his vehicle and drove to his home, where he found the 49-cent part.
"There is a saying in Coalville," said Willoughby. "If you can't buy it at the Merc, you don't need it."
The store with the old-fashioned white butcher cooler, well-worn wooden floors and walls decorated with animal skins, heads and antlers, seems like something out of a black-and-white television show.
The front contains mostly groceries. Jim's brother Spug, 67, works two days a week, mostly as a butcher. His love for his customers, even total strangers, is obvious. And he can tell a story. The old white meat cooler contains mostly deli meats and cheeses as well as fresh-ground country sausage or hamburger. There are a few steaks there, apparently mostly for show.
As a customer orders a couple of ribeyes, Spug hauls a big piece of beef out of the cooler and puts it on a well-used butcher block. Smiling, he asks the customer how thick the steaks should be cut.
"What would you recommend?"
"About three-quarters of an inch," said the man with the slicked back hair and a toothy smile brighter than his white apron. Spug then lopped off two beautiful steaks, cut to order.
Part of the Merc's success, of course, is customer loyalty. One person said her family might have starved during the depression if the Blonquists hadn't offered credit. Another is variety. While the store isn't huge, you can find a teapot next to a birdhouse, Carhart clothing, boots, jeans, garden seeds, coolers, hardware, socks and appliances. Finally, there is the service.
"We try to keep something of everything that people might want," said Jim.
Blonquist has earned a reputation as a handy guy who knows how to fix stuff. His customers ask him for advice on how to do minor home repairs. Some even call him on the phone.
"People trust me," he said.
Spug and Jim have worked at the store since they were young kids. Jim hated his first job, which involved cleaning the clinkers out of the old coal boiler behind the building, a dirty job that he admits scared him a bit.
"During the oil boom in the '70s, there was a Canadian drilling company that had a man camp operated by a former pro wrestler, a big guy," said Spug. "He wanted 25 2Â½-inch thick T-bones. I thought that was too thick, so I gave him 1Â½-inch steaks. The next week, the guy game in and asked 'do you know what 2Â½ inches is?' After that, I cut him 2Â½-inch steaks."
Jim, now 61, works out of an ancient office upstairs in the old brick building. That area is mostly empty these days. Relatives once used three rooms for their home. A dentist and eye doctor had offices there. His office contains a couple of computers and an antique yellow Famlee Bread "22 slices fresh" electric clock.
Asked if he still extends credit like old general and company stores once did, Jim hit a couple of buttons on his computer and pulled out a spread sheet. The accounts receivable for the end of June were $62,729.29.
"That's running as low as I've ever had," he said. "It used to be twice that. Plastic changed all that."
Jim said his grandfather Alfred and his brother Axel started the business with a half dozen other residents in 1908. They raised money by forming a corporation offering 25,000 shares of stock for $1. When the building was completed, another 25,000 shares were offered.
"They hired a couple of early managers early on, but it was a faltering business," recalled Blonquist. "My grandfather poured his own money into it to keep it afloat â¦ He bought a lot of the other people out."
Axel and Alfred also started the First National Bank of Coalville, which for a time printed its own money, two examples of which can be seen hanging framed on the wall near the entrance to the store.
Eventually Spug and Jim's dad Chet and uncle Mel took over the store and started to make some money. Mel retired in the 1960s, leaving the store to Chet, who trained his two sons. Spug tried some college and was in the Army. Jim got married out of high school and immediately began working for his dad.
"Dad gave us more responsibility, but not a whole lot more," said Jim. "In January of 1981, dad had a heart attack in the store and died that day. The next day, Spug and I were in charge."
Jim's youngest daughter Katie, who is nicknamed Boo, works part-time, often stocking the shelves. Leah Judd has worked here for more than 30 years and seems to know the name of everyone who walks into the store. A sign over her checkout counter reads: "If you are grouchy, irritable or just plain mean, there will be a $10 charge for putting up with you." The $10 has been scratched out and changed to $20, with a note blaming inflation.
Every other Saturday, Jim's oldest son Mark who put himself through Utah State University by working as a butcher in Logan after being trained at the Merc serves as the butcher. The store closes on Sunday. Jim usually works from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and gets off at 10 a.m. on his day off.
"We are closed on Sunday, my real day off," he laughed. "People ask me, 'Why don't you go to church?' I tell them that it just happens that it falls on my day off. I'm very spiritual on Sunday, just in my own way."
The Merc is also a town gathering place, where folks come in to trade stories.
"Nobody around here is too busy to chit chat about stuff," said Jim. "In the summer, we get some strangers from Camper World or the lake [Echo Reservoir.] In the off-season, during an entire day, there is hardly a person who comes in the store that I am not personally acquainted with."
Blonquist isn't certain what will happen to the Merc when he retires. His goal is to work for at least five more years. Then, who knows?
For now, the Summit Merc remains a small, local institution, where the meat and produce is fresh, the help friendly and the atmosphere a throwback to a simpler era.
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