The vintage general store in this tiny whistle-stop community marked its 60th year in business in 2010, a milestone remarkable for many reasons.
It’s been continuously open since 1905, and under the same owner these last 60 years.
“And we never went broke,” jokes Baker, a farm boy turned stock boy and eventually store owner, after beginning to work alongside his dad as a young lad. His dad bought the store in 1950.
With its slammer front door, ice chests that once held fivecent sodas, wood floors and long counters, the little store is as rare a find as these were once commonplace in rural Manitoba.
Baker keeps his shelves neatly stocked with groceries, though admits they’re a tad more bare than the days when they carried hardware, menswear and chewing tobacco.
One shelf is lined with boxes and tins of once-popular food brands like Western Canada Flour Mills Quick Cooking Purity Oats.
Brands changed. So have the times. Vista has now dwindled down to about 25 residents and there’s far fewer farms around.
A LOT OF SIDELINES
But “people were very good to me,” says Baker, adding that it’s the solid patronage from those that did stick around that’s kept him going.
That, and being diversified as a business.
“I’ve had a lot of sidelines,” he continues. “I also had the bus depot and I was paymaster for the elevators. The farmers would bring their grain in and bring their cheque to me, I’d cash it and then they’d buy groceries.”
People have been stopping in here for mail for nearly 40 years too. Baker took on the postmaster’s job in the early winter of 1971. “I remember sorting those Co-operators,”he tells a visitor.
His tenure with Canada Post has only recently ended. He said “forget it” after they insisted he switch to a computerized system.
3,869 HOURS OF SICK LEAVE
He retired earlier this year and as an indication of a man who loves his work, did so with a record of perfect work attendance – and 3,869 hours of accumulated sick leave.
Vista-area residents now pick up their mail out of metal boxes erected at the front of the store. Regrettably, it means fewer stop in, he adds.
He has memories of busier days. That’s when his McCaskey Account Register on the counter held over 150 accounts, and Vista was buzzing with a school, other stores, and three grain elevators. The store was built the same year the first train pushed through to Rossburn, loaded with plows and stoves, along what was then the Canadian Northern Railway.
The last train rolled past Vista in 1996. Today the rail line is now a recreational trail link in the Trans Canada Trail. Trail users occasionally stop by.
Vista residents held a special long-service celebration in honour of Baker, his wife Joan and their family in 2006. He proudly displays a photo of his family’s portrait superimposed over the false front of the store. The street outside has been renamed Baker Street.
Perfectly content to stay put and live out his days here, Baker admits he’s not very optimistic about the long-term future for places like Vista. “I’m afraid they’re all just going to disappear some day,” he said.
But he’s not giving up this community’s trademark store. He has no plans to retire or move from his home at the back of it. So long as he remains in good health, R. J. Baker’s General Store stays open, says Baker.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. That’s why I don’t want to pack it in.”
OnabrightAugustmorningDickBakeris smilingbehindthecounteranddoing exactlywhathe’sdoneeverydaymostof hislife–greetingcustomersandselling groceriesatR.J.Baker’sGeneralStore.
“I’veenjoyedevery minuteofit.That’s whyIdon’twant topackitin.”
– DICK BAKER, OWNER OF R. J. BAKER’S GENERAL STORE IN VISTA, MAN.