When is a shoplifter not a shoplifter? Only in small- town America can this be a problem.

That question came to mind while I was reading an old story dealing with a small town businessman who, years ago, was having trouble regaining his reputation.

What bothered him the most was the fact that he was innocent but had been presumed guilty, thanks to unfounded rumors.

What bothered me is his “crime” was something I’ve done myself many times in the past.

He was born and raised in a rural community and had lived there all of his life. As is often the case with small town people was the fact that he did as much business as possible in his hometown.

Because a certain type of rice was not available at the local grocery store, he had driven to a large town’s supermarket to buy the rice.

He didn’t feel like using a shopping cart, so he stuck a couple of the boxes of the rice in his coat pocket when he decided to also buy some cans of fruit.

At the checkout counter he pulled out the boxes of rice from his pocket and paid for everything.

Three weeks later, a rumor started circulating in his hometown that he had been caught shoplifting. Seems a supermarket employee started the story when he saw him pulling the boxes out of his pocket.

Suddenly the quiet businessman was the subject of back fence gossip.

His secretary comes to work nearly in tears. He explains what took place. She calls the supermarket assistant manager, who happens to be a friend of hers. The assistant manager confirms her boss’ story and assures the secretary there is nothing to the rumor.

But, as is often the case in small-town Iowa, the rumors increase instead of disappear. The businessman fought for years to gain his reputation back.

Well, I must confess to doing the same thing. There was a time when I would often stick items in my jacket pocket when I ran out of arm space in the local grocery store. For some reason, I just didn’t feel the need to push a cart around if I was only there for a couple of items. I guess I never did think of it as a crime — or even being in bad taste. I always paid for the items and no one ever questioned me about it.

That was the beauty of doing business at home.

I also remember taking my groceries home without paying for them because I had forgot my billfold and didn’t have enough pocket change to pay for them. “Just pay us the next time you’re in.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you go into your friendly grocery store and start sticking items into your pockets. That’s no longer acceptable – not even in small-town Iowa. Besides, they probably have small baskets available.

Remember though … small-town businesses are great places to shop. They may not always have all the latest items, but you can bet what you buy there is going to be good. And if you have a problem with something, you can also bet that they will stand behind it.

Trouble is, we are losing many of these stores. Some may say that it’s a sign of the times. I hope not, because these stores are the backbone of the communities they serve. We need to have more of them — not less!

Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.