If you’re one of those people who must have the latest news, the hottest song, the newest techno-toy, catch me next time. This posting, I’m going to take my sweet time waxing nostalgic.
Let’s start up the street, at Bielski’s or Mankowitz’s or Schoeningruber’s store.
For a century and more, corner stores were an essential part of life in American cities and towns. They were neighborhood social centers — the place where families picked up food, household supplies, and gossip, sometimes several times a day.
Immigrants got a foothold there, keeping their families together in living quarters upstairs, and earning a decent living. Outside of schools and hospitals and a few offices downtown, the corner grocery store was one of the few venues where women could make their mark.
The grocer was like family, cutting meat to order, delivering food by bicycle, often selling on credit.
When author and preservationist Ellen Beasley of Galveston, Texas, photographed corner stores and interviewed their proprietors over a 20-year period late in the past century, what first caught her eye was the architecture. Many stores had what are called “chamfered corners” — cut away to allow access from both cross streets — as well as awnings, or what people in Galveston call “sheds,” extending to the street and wrapping around the corner. Beasley said these entryways were like corner shade trees, under which people would sit, play cards, and talk.
Sometimes you’d find two, three, or even four stores on a single corner. Their proprietors would open early — really early, because customers would be waiting to buy the day’s supply of fresh milk, bread, butter, and meat. With little or no refrigeration at home, they couldn’t stock up for a week. So they’d be back each morning. If the storekeeper was late opening up, you’d throw a pebble against the window upstairs and tell Mrs. Cantini or Mr. Kraftcheck to “shake a leg” and hurry down.
You couldn’t get a television set or a watch or a set of tools at these tiny stores, whose selection of goods was limited. But people liked the atmosphere.
Often it was because the father, mother, and kids who took turns running the place spoke your language and stocked the right ingredients for, in the case of my neighborhood, Hungarian goulash or Polish pierogi.
On the store walls, the owner would hang religious icons, family photos, and school diplomas: homemade, personal touches you won’t find at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
At the Fisher Brothers’ (I think they were brothers) grocery store up at Madison and Winton avenues in Lakewood, Ohio, where I grew up, the aisles were narrow, the smells were exotic, and you could slide across the sawdust on the floor. If we were having guests for dinner, we could call one of the Fishers and ask him to slice and save us a certain cut of beef or a particular kind of bread.
The drug store across Atkins Avenue was a family operation, too. The owners knew my mom and grandmother. They knew me for sure, because they put my name on so many prescriptions. They’d take Mother’s calls late at night, come down and open up, and prepare the needed medications. Mustard plasters, even. Not to worry if we were short on cash. We could bring it next time.
When Ellen Beasley brought some of her corner-store photographs and ephemera to Washington for an exhibit, a woman who grew up in Queens, New York, came to see it. “You knew the people in these stores,” she told me. “They’d be there the next day and the day after that. Now, when you go into the convenience store, it’s a different young kid who doesn’t know you from Adam.
“And doesn’t care to.”
Refrigeration, easy automobile travel, and the development of supermarkets killed off most corner stores. Along with your groceries at a mega-store, you can get almost anything. A bathing suit, enormous cans of peaches, a hundred rolls of paper towels on a skid.
But the people there won’t know you from Adam.
Tomato Seeds to Rock Candy
“Big box” stores where you can get everything from postage stamps to clothes dryers are not some revolutionary concept. They are updated, upsized re-inventions of old-timey general stores.
I remember an authentic one — J. R. Jones’s General Store — at Greenfield Village, a historic theme park begun in 1929 in Dearborn, Michigan by automobile magnate Henry Ford. In a scene out of the 1880s — as youngsters rolled hoops, a steam carousel seated its next load of riders, and a boy on a unicycle glided by outside — a costumed volunteer invited us in.
General stores, she explained, were a rural refinement of early trading posts, carrying all sorts of things one needed to keep a household or farm operating.
This one had once stood along a railroad line in Waterford, Michigan, so James Jones could bring in quite a selection: salt pork, sugar, nails and pickles in barrels, bolts of cloth, pots and pans, chewing tobacco, jars for “putting up” garden vegetables for the winter, and patent medicines that made you feel better, mostly because of their high alcohol content.
A big draw at Jones’s store was the telephone — the first in town. People would come in, make a call, and hang out awhile, maybe over a game of checkers. The arrival of a “drummer,” or traveling salesman, would attract a crowd, eager to catch up on the news from Detroit and Waterford’s surrounding towns.
And just like so many corner-store owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived right upstairs. (The second floor later became a roller-skating rink!)
It wasn’t monster outlets that put most general stores out of business. It was Sears and Montgomery Ward’s mail-order catalogs. Ward’s called its “The Wish Book,” from which folks could order fancy goods a small-town general store couldn’t match.
From Sears, you could even order a brand-new, pre-built home — complete with 600 pounds of nails, 20 cans of paint, and 15,000 asphalt shingles — delivered in two railroad boxcars.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones definitely didn’t have that in stock.
Five’ll Get You Ten
I’m mixing my time periods, I know, but the mists of what Carol and I call “Disappearing America” also cover “five-and-dime” stores, which pretty much bit the dust in the late 1990s when Woolworth’s closed its last 400 of what had been 2,500 stores.
A dime is 10 U.S. cents, and when the Woolworth, Kress, Kresge, G. C. Murphy, and McCrory companies got started toward the beginning of the 20th Century, they sold just about everything for a nickel (5 cents) or a dime. It did not take too many years for prices to go up as these stores became Main Street fixtures, but the “five and dime” or “dime store” name hung on.
Five-and-10-cent stores sold candy — lots of candy — in huge bins that sometimes ran the length of a wall. Scissors and women’s makeup and lampshades, too, and cheap perfume, gloves and scarves, underwear and school supplies — even parakeets, goldfish, turtles and, at Eastertime, baby chicks dyed purple or pink. Few of the poor turtles or colored “peeps,” as we called them, made it very far past the holiday once we got them home.
I remember big meatloaf sandwiches and french fries and banana splits at the Woolworth lunch counter, and the smell of chocolate that permeated the store.
“I always had just enough time to run into the Woolworth store and get myself a vanilla Coke, dig through the record bin, wink at the boys, and get back on the bus.
The Woolworth stores . . . have this wonderful smell to ‘em. They smell like popcorn and chewing gum, rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-sole shoe.”
Perhaps the most famous dime store was the Woolworth’s in racially segregated Greensboro, North Carolina. With tensions rising all over town in 1960, in walked four African-American college students. They quietly took seats at the “whites-only” lunch counter and were quickly arrested and jailed. Some say the “Greensboro Four’s” peaceful sit-in ignited a movement for equal rights that soon spread throughout the South.
Shopping centers and strip malls that popped up throughout suburbia featured discount and warehouse places, not humble five-and-dimes. A few dime stores, offering little or no parking, hung on downtown, but the quality of their merchandise and service declined.
Dime stores are all but gone now, but on the poorer sides of towns you’ll find some bargain outfits called “dollar stores.” The name, at least, caught up with inflation.
Eggs Over Easy
I can’t channel musty American institutions without recalling my favorite. It served sorta fresh, sorta prepackaged food, kinda fast or kinda slow, with great or lousy atmosphere, depending on your point of view.
The name above the door didn’t matter. We just called it “the diner.”
It got its name from the sleek dining cars on passenger trains in the 1940s. Some were actual retired railroad cars.
We loved their neon signs and old-time rock-‘n’-roll on the jukebox. And the food: cheap, greasy, full of calories. But made to order: Bacon and eggs for breakfast, and steaming coffee all day long. Meatloaf (again), liver and onions, great big burgers — served with green beans and french fries and root beer in a glass. Milk shakes made right in front of you, from real ice cream.
Diners didn’t have “servers.” A waitress named Marge or Flo, who had a few years on her but a heart of gold, seemed genuinely interested to hear about your big sales meeting or the blizzard out on the highway. She’d pull the pencil from behind her ear, tell you about the meatloaf special and the pie of the day, and pop her gum as she scribbled your order. Beneath his dangling cigarette, Sam, the short-order cook, would fry it up, ding a little bell, and yell out the serving window that your order was “up.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but diners had many elements of modern art: stainless steel, porcelain enamel, shiny chrome, checkerboard linoleum floors, and bright-green booths and counter stools.
Each diner was unique — nothing like McDonald’s or the other formulaic fast-food joints that came along in the 1960s. Most diners couldn’t compete with them. They closed and were busted up and carted off to the junkyard.
But a few survived, and retro versions of the old ones are hot right now.
Carol extensively photographed the old Modern Diner in the blue-collar mill town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On a Thursday night back in the ’40s, we were told, they’d line up around the block to get in there.
Thursday was payday in the mills.
The Modern Diner was one of a few “Sterling Streamliner” diners, inspired by streamlined trains such as the Burlington Railroad’s “Pioneer Zephyr.” It was silver, with one end rounded like it’s leaning into the wind. Inside: chromium stools, upholstered booths, abundant neon, and little jukeboxes in every booth.
The Modern Diner closed in the 1970s in the face of competition from new, quick-serve places. It sat empty and vandalized for years. Finally somebody bought it, moved it to swankier surroundings, and fixed it up. Now, believe it or not, it’s described as “a cool, upscale diner.”
Indeed, Americans are making new memories — still involving grease and gravy and a touch of heartburn — at diners across America. For my tastes, though, today’s Lisas or Kimberlys don’t have Marge’s panache. I haven’t met one yet who can carry off, “What’ll it be there, bud?” then, to Sam, “Cup-a-Joe. Two birds. Flip-‘em. Burn the bread. Hold the lard. Two pigs. Make ‘em holler.”
Ephemera. Sort of a fancy, academic word for memorabilia, including simple household items that were once here, then gone. Ephemeral, in other words.
Goulash. Rich, Hungarian stew, heavily seasoned with paprika spice.
Mustard plaster. A poultice made of cloth and a paste of what, to the touch, feels like red-hot peppers. It’s an old remedy designed to relieve chest congestion.
Pierogi. Polish dumplings, stuffed with ingredients such as sausage, cabbage, and mashed potatoes.