all photos by Steve Drescher
edited by Blair Shiver
Yes! Middle Bass Island does have a grocery store.
This little roadside joint stands taller in a community of 50 full time residents than every Giant Eagle in Cleveland’s surrounding area. Constructed in 1987 the Middle Bass Island General Store is a grocery store, yet also boasts a fully-stocked bar, restaurant, hardware section and is most notably known as gathering space for the island’s elite.
A Tourist’s Take
“The Middle Bass General Store is a cute little roadside catchall for groceries, eats, drinks and has all the necessities for dinner,” described Conde Nast’s Cynthia Drescher when asked how she would explain the establishment to travelers.
This accomplished journalist, who hails from a bedroom community of Toledo hopped the Miller Boat Line to neighboring South Bass Island and then ferried over on the Sonny S for a day of visiting her younger brother, a bartender by night at Saint Hazards Waterfront Resort and Brewery and photojournalist by assignment during the day.
“You know when you get somewhere, and you don’t know quite what to expect the first time you’re somewhere, and then you walk in and they have everything? I feel more comfortable seeing this aspect,” Drescher explained her reaction as she chewed a Reuben Sandwich and the logistics of where the day’s adventure had taken her.
She calls New York City home right now and shared this sentiment, “This menu showcases island lunch fare. You only expect so much from an island considering it all has to be shipped in. So, I’m not coming out here expecting gourmet food. You don’t even get that on Put-in-Bay. I’m just happy they have it. This is so very local.”
The Owner and the Logistics of Island Groceries
Sheller lived on the island for the first six years of his life and then once his family crossed the unsalted waters to make a home on the mainland, he ventured back to this remote Lake Erie island playground every weekend. In 1992, his dad purchased the property.
Sheller, who stands well over 6’2″, has dark hair, eyes and complexion is best described as the quintessential Great Lakes guy. He always appears to have just walked off of a football field after practice because he’s always wearing workout apparel and sport shoes. The sport isn’t football but survival and supply on an island that remains largely undeveloped. “The Store” is always hiring but Sheller shares he doesn’t have employees.
“Mike is always in here, he just works for beer. I do have a lot of people who just come in and help me out,” Sheller disclosed of the secrets to running the business.
Sheller also spoke like a true island entrepreneur when he admitted he rarely shuts his eyes.
“I don’t [sleep]. When Peggy (Taylor) comes in on Saturday or Sunday, I’ll go home and take a 20 minute nap,” he admitted.
“The Store” boasts of a frozen food section that includes a section of Toft’s. A representative brings over the frozen dessert packed in dry ice on a 40-minute ferry ride across the lake. A refrigerator section contains fruit and dairy products; there’s an aisle of snack food, one with canned dry goods, and other essentials such as Milk Bone dog biscuits, Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, contact lens solution and cotton balls. Sliced bread and buns for those impromptu barbecues share an aisle with wine and spirits. The selection includes bottles of 19 Crimes, other blends from California and more unique, regional bottles from Canada’s Pelee Island and Catawba Island on the mainland.
For Sheller the concept is in the store’s simplicity.
“My Dad originally had it stocked, and you knew what necessities you need. Four or five years ago, a small retail consultant came in and assessed the stock. We’re situated on a 755-acre island. There is zero pressure. The only item we run out of are worms or minnows,” he laughed. “People come in here, and they get what they want and they leave. A wine salesman sets the shelves (of wine). If it doesn’t work we sell something else.”
An aisle of souvenirs impress worldly, well-traveled tourists like Drescher whose next assignment will take her to Cuba. Sweatshirts with Middle Bass Island emblazoned across the chest hang from garment racks, and anyone can blow their allowance on Lake Erie Pancake Syrup or artwork showcasing watercolor depictions of island landmarks from Lake Erie Artist Jim Siemer.
The Locals Watering Hole
Peggy, who pops in to relieve and assist the charming grocer, doubles as the island’s United States Post Office employee situated across the street from the store. The evening we stopped in, she was behind the bar in a decorated ball cap pouring drinks and mingling with fellow islanders.
“The people in the bar are 90 percent locals,” Sheller said.
Several generations of families who live and work on the island at least part time are seen alongside local business leaders and the Who’s Who of Middle Bass Island. Their success and family money is displayed on their wrists via Rolex watches.
Jessica Bartels works at both the Middle Bass Island Yacht Club and “The Store”. She’s lived on the island her entire life, and on this particular Friday night encounter, she was in the company of her parents, boyfriend, brother, grandmothers and her friends sipping a decadent after-dinner drink popular on the Lake Erie Islands, a Brandy Alexander.
“My grandparents used to live here year round. Now they’re only here in the summer, and they vacation in Florida. My parents are building a house here,” the recent Bowling Green State University psych grad explained of The Store’s social scene. “My dad works in technology and travels a lot, so whenever he needs to get off the island, he stays over there on the mainland where we have another house.”
Even on such a tiny plot of land accessible only by boat, plane or helicopter, politics are in play.
“About six years ago, and they started changing [The Store] into a bar and restaurant,” the adorable, 20-something blonde remarked. “Eddie has always been a big islander, and so has his Dad.That’s why it’s always been a big place for islanders to gather.”
The Middle Bass General Store is the last structure in ‘town’ located a little less than one mile from the ferry docks. There’s an adjacent hardware store with an entrance strategically located in between the dairy section and Lake Erie souvenirs. This island-go-to-establishment does seem to have everything except a full-blown organic section complete with coconut milk. A pitstop will pose the question to visitors, “What exactly do I need from a corporate superstore? Where’s the owner to serve an after-dinner drink sprinkled with nutmeg?”
Observed Drescher, “I noticed that “The Store” just isn’t your basic BBQ stuff and food for the weekend. The establishment supports the community.”
“If we don’t have it,” said Sheller, “You don’t need it.”
The Middle Bass General Store, restaurant and bar hours change with the season but is open seven days a week. It’s worth the ferry ride over to check out this local gem of the Great Lakes! (419) 285-2608.
To view my slideshow of The Store just click through the pictures I took.