The Store (Guest Post)

Guest post by Scott Anderson, the dad.

It was an unassuming store in an unassuming city, and though it lingered on well into the 1980s, it was clearly from a different era. The city had become important during the era of the canal and had lost much of its luster when the canal was enlarged and, out of necessity, moved, and bypassed the city entirely, and then the railroads came and eliminated much of the canals’ importance. There isn’t any point to this story of a store except that it is full of reminiscences for me, and if you had stores in your neighborhood like this when you were younger, maybe it will bring back some fond memories for you as well.

The store was a small grocery, one of several, built when there were no cars and no refrigeration and so people bought the food they needed several times a week – walking to and from their flats – and bought incidentals such as soap whenever they happened to already be there. If the store was too far for someone to walk, that meant there was another small grocery closer to their apartment.

Like many of the older parts of the older cities in the northeast, there just weren’t single-family homes as we understand them today. Everybody lived in an apartment; usually one of the occupants was the owner of the building.

The store was on a street corner, two-thirds of the lower portion of a two story building, with a small apartment behind it and a larger one upstairs. My grandparents had bought it from “Meemaw,” which is what we all called my great-grandmother, who had come from Italy as a young woman in the early part of the last century. She wasn’t the original owner – the building was probably constructed in the 1850s, forty years before she was born – and it was never clear to me how she got it in the first place. At some point later on, somebody had, just barely, added plumbing and electrical service.

One of the reasons you had to walk to the store was that the neighborhood predated automobiles and so streets were narrow and parking was dear. The neighbors considered my grandfather a very wealthy man, which by the standards of the neighborhood he probably was, not so much because he owned a small grocery but because he owned the almost unthinkable luxury of an indoor place to park his car.  He had bought, at some point, a small lot which was too small to build a house of any decent size and had constructed the smallest conceivable two-car stand-alone garage, about two blocks from the store, with a cement wall in the middle so he could rent out the other stall.

Since this is mostly about the store, let me describe the layout as I best remember it. The door faced the main street and was directly in the middle of the building.  When you walked in, the produce was on a shelf to your immediate right, all just laid out in the open, below an enormous single-pane plate glass window. Someone who had studied marketing might think the produce was right in the window to draw customers, but my grandparents had the produce there because that was where the produce had always been.

On the other side of the door was one of those ancient chest-freezer-sized Coca-Cola soda coolers. It was just a big, top-loaded, insulated box in which the soda bottles stood upright, and we filled it with ice to keep the soda cold. In the front it had a bottle opener attached with a surprisingly large bin underneath to catch and store the discarded bottle caps; the bin was large enough that we only had to empty it once or twice a year.

The center part of the store had two main aisles, perhaps sixteen feet long, with shelves where the canned goods and dry goods were mostly kept, along with a small freezer, mostly for ice cream. Along the left wall was a permanently sealed door, which if opened would lead to the upstairs apartment, but my grandparents were frugal (the more polite of the two words I might have chosen) and kept the smaller apartment behind the store for themselves and their four daughters, and rented out the upstairs; since it was bigger, they could get more rent for it.

Beyond the door was the large, modern, upright cooler for beer, the only modern thing in the place, and beyond that the magazine rack which held some of the fairly lurid “detective magazines” which were popular decades ago, along with some more ordinary magazines and a decent supply of comic books. Opposite the store from that was the five-shelf unit that held the store’s supply of candy: the bottom shelf was the two-for-a-penny candy, and it went up from there until you got to the full size candy bars at the top.

Like small groceries then and now, there was a counter where you brought your goods to have them bagged and to pay; unlike modern groceries, the counter was at the extreme rear of the store, as far from the entry door as it could be (and behind it was the doorway to the apartment). There was, as you’d expect, a cash register, an old electromechanical model that seemed to date from about the 1930s, but it never worked, other than to serve as a place to store the cash we took in. It was covered with business cards for other local businesses, some old enough to have phone numbers that wouldn’t make any sense to a modern American, like the towing service which advertised that in order to reach it all you had to do was “call 32.”

Part of the counter area had storage for the paper bags and various other non-retail things. Small, expensive items which might be too temptingly easy to shoplift were stored on a wall unit behind the counter, things like cigarette lighters and lip balms. To the right was a large deli cooler which held the various meats and cheeses that the immigrant families that made up the neighborhood favored, with a table behind holding a commercial slicer.

As a kid, I marveled at the fact that we never sold deli sandwiches, since we had all of the necessary ingredients.  The “we” there is because, like everyone else in the family, we grandkids worked at the store when we were over there, and from a very young age. This is still common among small family establishments.  There might be some legal violation to having an eight-year-old boy using a commercial meat slicer, but I never knew and didn’t care, and still don’t.

When I became older and learned about things like governments and regulations and municipal enforcing agents, I began to understand that such a seemingly simple thing as taking some bread out of a loaf (which we sold) and putting sliced meat (which we sold) and cheese (which we sold) and adding, let us say, a bit of mustard (which we sold) would take us beyond the regulatory definition of a grocery store and lead us into the regulatory rat’s nest of the restaurant business, which my grandparents had neither the time nor the patience for.

I haven’t introduced my grandparents. Their names were Norman Fisher and Lucy DelRa, but of course, once they were married in 1940, she became Lucy Fisher. They had five children but one had been stillborn; the other four, at this writing (November 2017), are still with us: four girls, two born before the war and two after Norman returned from naval service. Norman and Lucy themselves, who would be in their late 90s if still alive, both died some years ago. The store had been important enough to the neighborhood that I’ve seen the neighborhood, in more than one place, referred to as Fisher’s Corner.

My grandmother, whose mother (Meemaw) had sold them the building and business, we called Gram, kids’ shorthand for the usual Grandma or Grandmother. My grandfather we called Pops because my one older cousin had called him that before she could pronounce anything more complicated like Grandpa, and so I, and all the cousins that came after me, just figured that must have been what we were supposed to call him.

Pops was a veteran of, as I mentioned, “the war,” which to everybody his age meant World War II. He had been in the navy, had served in the Pacific, and never tired of talking about it to anyone who would listen. Like many of his peers, he had that kind of thoughtless, almost cheerful racism that would pop out in a conversation without any thought or malice behind it. I lived in a mostly African American neighborhood while in college, and Pops asked me one day how I liked “living among the darkies.”

Neil Golub, who was in the process of starting the Price Chopper chain, had built a much larger grocery six blocks away by extensively remodeling an old hospital, with ruinous effect on the store and all the other small groceries in that section of the city. It included – and this made our jaws drop – parking for sixteen cars, off the street. An entire city parcel, just for parking cars. Outrageous. There wasn’t another retail business in the entire city that had such an astonishing and luxurious amenity. From then until the end of his life, Pops would refer to Golub, who ended up owning a substantial chain of such stores, as “that Jew.”

In their everyday dealings with their customers, though, questions of race and ethnicity never came up, because everybody was a first or second generation immigrant from central or southern Europe. Meemaw spoke Italian and never learned enough English to have a real conversation in it, which was the case with a lot of the older neighbors. The customers were of French or Italian or sometimes Polish descent, or not even descent but had come to America from those countries. Nearly everyone was Roman Catholic; at one time there were a dozen or so Catholic parishes within that not-large city.

Since the cash register never worked, Pops taught us how to keep a running total in our heads, though we would write the amounts on the paper bags and add them up there for distrustful customers who insisted. He also taught us how to count back change the old way, counting up from the amount charged, in that familiar patter of clerks at stores from that time: “let’s see, that’s $18.17 out of $20, so eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, nineteen dollar, and one makes $20” as we’d hand back first the pennies and then the silver coins and finally the bills.

If a kid wanted twenty cents’ worth of candy and he had exactly twenty cents, I’d do it as two separate transactions: $0.10 was not then a taxable transaction there, but $0.20 was. It was easier to do that than to try to explain the concept of sales tax to a little kid. My grandfather would just do it as one transaction and eat the penny, which was how he was; my grandmother would make them give back a penny’s worth of candy or find a penny to cover the tax, which was how she was. The kids all knew them and knew who was running the shop when, which is why they all came when Pops was manning the battle-stations, which was fine with both of them. Everything was cash; grocery stores simply did not take any kind of credit card then, none of them anywhere, and my grandparents had been burned far too many times to let anyone write them a check.

Nothing ever changed in the store. The neighborhood changed, slowly, gradually, but the store never changed. The soap was always on the bottom shelf to the left of the second aisle, about two-thirds of the way down the aisle. At one point they had brought in some real soap, lye soap, a brand called Octagon, for a customer who had requested it. At some point the customer moved or died or just stopped coming in, or started using the modern brands, and the last six or eight bars of Octagon just sat there, frozen in time; we kids would dust them off every now and then. When they retired and closed the store, I picked up the bar of Octagon soap, and on the back was a coupon that had expired twenty years earlier.

The larger store down the street destroyed Gram and Pops’ produce business. The bigger store had a much larger selection and had things my grandparents had never seen, like misters and chillers, and could charge less because they were buying in much larger quantities. So the produce selection dwindled to less and less and finally nothing, and then, because nothing but produce had ever been placed on the shelf near the big plate-glass window, nothing whatever was ever placed there again.

Candy, soda, beer and cigarettes were less troubled by the existence of the larger store. Some of the smaller kids weren’t allowed to walk that far, and the bigger store had much less of a candy selection, and none of the two-for-a-penny stuff. Some of the dads wouldn’t have been able to successfully navigate the extra distance on foot to buy their beer, since in many cases the beer they were buying from us wasn’t even close to their first beer of the day. One of the brands we sold, Schaefer, had a radio slogan for a time, unthinkable nowadays, which announced in three-part harmony that “Schaefer was the one beer to have when you’re having more than one,” and the dads in the neighborhood seemed to have taken it as words to live by.

Nobody drove to the store to buy anything. You couldn’t. When people drove to visit my grandparents, they usually ended up parking a block or more away, sometimes illegally. When I was older and could drive there, I would often park at their church, a few blocks away, which had a small parking lot and a priest who didn’t mind. Anyone would just walk there if they were able to; some of the dads who had overindulged would send their kids to the store to get their beer and cigarettes.

Some of the more enterprising youth would come in falsely claiming to be buying beer or smokes for their poor, out-of-sorts father, but we all knew everybody in the neighborhood, so that trick never worked.

For some of the much older folks in the neighborhood, when any of us kids were around, we would deliver the groceries, which was not a service the store could formally offer – my grandparents were never sure when any of us would be around to help, and they certainly weren’t going to do it – but folks appreciated the informal delivery service, and we usually walked away with a quarter for a tip.

The car that Pops parked in the off-site garage that he had built was a beauty, a Dodge sedan that was nearly as old as I was. He had bought it new, from the Dodge dealer across the river; all the car dealerships in his own city had long since folded up their tents. He only routinely used it once a week, to take the weekly deposit to the bank, which was more than a mile away and much too far to walk while carrying a week’s worth of cash. When he was younger, it wasn’t a question of worrying about being robbed; nobody would have tried it and he’d have gladly taken on anyone who did. It was just that a lot of the money was in coin, and carrying around a bunch of coin can get tiring.

Every time he’d go, he would go to the garage, check the oil and other fluid levels, make sure everything looked right in the engine compartment and that the belts were tight enough, and check the air pressure in the tires. When he was sure the car was up to the strenuous, nearly three-mile round trip, he would drive it the couple blocks to the store, bring out the money, go to the bank, deposit the money, park the car back in the garage and walk back to the store. Other than that, my grandparents only drove the car for their very infrequent visits to faraway relatives (far away was anyplace too far to walk) and a couple-times-a-year visit to the racetrack. In nearly fifty years, they never took a vacation or shut the store for any period of time except that it was never open on Sunday (although if you were desperate Pops would open it for you) or certain holidays.

Then, in the 1980s, they wanted to retire; there was so little business going on anymore that it was hard to imagine that they could sell the place as a going concern, and they didn’t want to move anyhow. Habits had changed: more and more people were shopping once a week, driving their cars the extra six blocks to the larger store where they could park while they shopped. So Gram and Pops closed the store. I drove over with a friend to buy the last six-pack of beer, but Pops had already counted the money for the day, so he just gave it to me. I have no idea what happened to the remaining merchandise, other than what distributors would take back, like magazines and unopened cartons of cigarettes. They converted the area of the store into a large family room, and for the only time in their lives had a decently large living space within their home. The sign overlooking the street corner, a lovely back-lit sign that the Hershey’s Ice Cream people had put up for him decades earlier (which, of course, in addition to advertising the name of the store, also mentioned that it sold Hershey’s Ice Cream) came down and vanished; I never found out where it ended up, and as like as not it was simply discarded.

I’ve told bits and pieces of this to a great many people over the years, and other stories that I haven’t included here about some of the interesting people who would stop by, or what passed for a basement (which we kids mostly kept the hell out of, and an adult couldn’t stand up straight in it), or Gram trying to keep kids from standing on the steps of the store eating their candy. Or the neighbor kid, Danny Bonomo, a bit older than me and the only person in my entire life whom I have ever allowed to call me “Scotty.” Or how we did holidays there, the entire extended family, all crammed into the small apartment.

People have asked me if all of this is true, and I actually don’t have a good, straight answer for that.  The basics of it are true; the store existed and the people are who I said they are.  The details are difficult to be certain of because memories have a certain fuzzy and inexact quality to them. I haven’t told any deliberate lies, and everything is how I remember it; the only question is as to how much of what I remember is factual and how much is my mind filling in, without any conscious effort, gaps in the actual memories. But that is true of everybody all the time.

Scott Anderson is E.M. Anderson’s dad, a math enthusiast, and a recovering computer engineer. Now he works as a dream-crusher for the U.S. Patent Office. He recently moved to Georgia, where he lives with his wife and far too many dogs.

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