I’m going to the store, do you need anything? Gallon of milk? Pack of smokes? Stack of lottery tickets to stake your future on? Write me a list, friend. I don’t remember things so well.

Generally, I go to five stores a day, just for gossip. I’ll buy my food here, my smokes there, embarrassing items at the little market tucked into the shadows along Oak Street.

Everything that’s hot going on in a given community, you can learn about at a corner store. It is no coincidence that if there is a killing in a faraway town and the reporter can’t make the trip, he will call a convenience store even before he checks in with police.

“Did you know the deceased? Any idea whodunit? Have they found the head yet?”

Stores are the very hub of gossip in the neighborhoods and towns they serve. The less chain-oriented the better. You might get a little bit of dirt at your local 7-Eleven or Irving, but the real action is at the mom and pop joints. There you will find employees who have worked in that very store and lived in that very neighborhood for 10 or 20 years.

They know who is sleeping with whom. They know how that important politician spends his weekends because he comes in each Friday for five bottles of Mad Dog and the kinds of magazines stashed beneath the counter. They know who the real daddy is to that neighborhood boy who enjoys lighting things on fire. They probably know what you did last summer.

It used to be that reporters would hang out in bars to measure the collective temperature of a neighborhood. It’s still a fine tactic, bloated tab aside, but bars are transitory. For every regular, there are five others who came in just this once and who will never be back. They know nothing about nothing. Most bars are microcosms unto themselves, and the only events that matter are those that occur upon their stools, in their bathrooms or atop their pool tables.

In the corner store, news is alive and constantly evolving. The elderly woman who comes to buy cat food for Precious will tell a clerk what she saw from her window late the night before. The clerk will pass that information on to the burgeoning alcoholic who comes in for a 40-ounce eye-opener. The burgeoning alcoholic will take that information and build on it, carrying back developing details when he returns to the store for a 40-ounce nightcap.

And so on and so forth, like dozens of obedient drones flinging bits of clay onto a larger mound so that the original clump grows exponentially. A wise and stunningly handsome reporter need only wander by and pick liberally from that heap of gossip.

If I could disguise myself as a bag of Doritos, I might hang out at Victor News all day. Victor News has 3,005 items (four of them being my books, which you must buy today so I can get paid), but more importantly, it is like an ant colony. All day long, cops, lawyers, politicians, street people, journalists, crooks, plumbers, welders, firefighters, librarians, city workers, probation officers, car dealers, aspiring rap stars and possibly professional bowlers scuttle in and out of the store. Each brings a token of news that has no financial value but which is compiled nonetheless by the wise queen behind the counter. Compiled and assessed and doled out on a need-to-know basis.

I might don the guise of a pizza slice and sit under the baking lights at Dave’s Place at the corner of Sabattus and College. Where Victor News is an ant colony, Dave’s Place is a gnashing knot of more carnivorous bugs buzzing on a bone in the heart of the city.

I mean that lovingly.

Dave’s is the epicenter of activity in that corner of the city. Bates kids go there on their way to wherever it is Bates kids go. Men and women stumbling out of bars stop by to gab in drunken volume to anyone who will listen. Working Joes fill up their cars and chat over pizza slices. Let go of my foot, you fool! I’m a reporter in disguise!

But corner stores are not libraries. You don’t just take what you want and go home to examine it in private. It’s a give-and-take business, this exchange of information. When I go to the market in search of details about this or that sordid crime, I begin by relating what I have learned. A show of goodwill and cooperation. That information is blended with whatever the store people have seen, heard or smelled. Seemingly insignificant details pop together like Legos pieces and the story takes on a more tangible form.

It’s beautiful, really. Such information sharing among commoners no doubt transpired in the very same way at the marketplaces of ancient Rome. There, men and women in togas would speak of strange things that transpired between Viagrus and Cialus the night before. They’d nod knowingly, these ancient Romans, buy scratch-off lottery tickets and be on their way.

So thank you, shopkeep, and thanks to all your patronage. It is a fine system we have, a beautiful symbiosis of newsgathering and news sharing. They don’t teach it in journalism school, I suspect, but they should.

I feel there was something else I meant to do with my time here but I’ve forgotten. No matter. I leave the store to you now, to bring what you can and take what you need. If you keep your ears open as you shop for butter and soap, you will pocket tidbits of information along with loose change and a crumpled receipt. Use it wisely.

And while you’re out, could you get me a bag of peanuts? That’s what I went there for to begin with, yet I came away without them.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can share gossip, news and confidential shopping tips at [email protected]

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