I just finished up a short walk to my local Safeway grocery store. I have a motorcycle and I have a bicycle and I love riding them both. I ride my bike every other day for 15 miles down on the American River bicycle trail (link). Let me tell you – it’s a gorgeous ride. If I need to run an errand that might normally require a ride in a car, I will choose to ride my motorcycle as long as it’s not raining and I can get into my backpack whatever I’m picking up. Where it comes to a small load of groceries though, I always choose to walk, wearing my Fox motorcycle backpack. On almost on every occasion, I’m taken back to my childhood when I would walk to the corner grocery store for my mom. This may shock many of my younger readers, but there once was a day when there was no such thing as Walmart. Supermarkets had been around for years, but on the west side of Hamilton, Ohio, the supermarket was a little place called Main Street Supermarket. It was anything but super, but compared to the multitude of neighborhood corner grocery stores, I guess they had a right to call themselves super. They did, after all, have a big jar of pickled pigs feet on top of the meat counter in the rear of the store. How can you have a giant jar of pickled pigs feet and not be super?
Mom would do some major shopping at the supermarket from time to time, but for most of the day to day or low volume needs, she’d send me off to Schell’s. Schell’s was one of several little corner grocery stores owned and operated by a private person, usually a married couple. Typically the store was the bottom floor of a two story house where the owners would live up on the top floor. At the crack of dawn, one or both would make their way downstairs to open up the store. Then at night, they’d lock up and head upstairs. Schells were hard working German immigrants, rarely taking a vacation.
On occasion, perhaps once per week, Mom would send me to Schell’s. I could read of course, so I’m not quite sure why I never had a list, but I didn’t. Likely I didn’t need a list for the number of items. She’d tell me which items to pick up and then I would repeat the list over and over inside my mind until I reached the store. A pound of ground beef, can of green beans, half gallon of milk, can of carrots and a loaf of bread became “breadbeef, carrotbeans & corn”, repeated over and over. So imagine a 7 year old walking, looking down at the sidewalk with a look of concentration on his face, talking to himself and you have me headed to Schell’s. Adults likely thought I was in special classes (I do recall their pulling their kids into the house when they saw me coming). I was the Rainman of the corner grocery shopping sprees!
When I arrived, I’d rattle off to Mrs. Schell the items and she’d round them up and place them on the small checkout counter. (72, 72, 72…course, course 246 toothpicks total). I seem to remember Schell’s husband’s name being Fred. I hope that’s right, but in any regard, Fred was a back office employee. He would manage the meat counter. Imagine a less talkative Fred than the Fred on the I Love Lucy Show and you have back-office Fred. Mrs. Schell was the people person. She was the original Walmart greeter before they had Walmarts. Before I left, she would tally up the damages and then ask if I was paying now or later. Everyone in those days kept a ‘tab’ with the local stores. It was the best ’30 days with no interest’ thing going. Every now and then, Mom would hand me a $20 or write a check and tell me to give it to Mrs. Schell to apply to our tab. And that’s how business was conducted in those days. Everyone knew each other and we all owed money to our local grocer.
Oh, and before we leave, let’s not forget my five or ten cents worth of penny candy for going to the store. Let’s see, Chum Gum would be in there as well as Sixlets and there might be a Jolly Rancher candy apple flavor along with several other delectable morsels of pure sugar sweetness. I’d eat most of the candy before I got home and would save the gum for later. That way, the kid candy day would get extended into the wee hours of the night. Typically Mom would tell me to pick up a few more pieces of candy for my two brothers. My sister was too young for candy; babies always miss out on the good stuff. Because of the candy, I never complained about having to go to the store for Mom – kids are cheap labor.
I want to give you readers an idea of just how prevalent these tiny grocery stores were when I was growing up as a young child:
Just across the street from Schell’s, on McKinley, was another store, but I cannot recall its name. Just up the street on Hunt and over one more block was Ben’s corner grocery store. What I recall the most about Ben’s is two things – one, you had to climb about a dozen concrete steps to get there and two, it was the place Dad would drop us kids off at after shagging his golf balls. (I plan to write a whole story on ball shagging one day). Even further away, just another block and across the railroad tracks, on Millville Avenue was yet another corner store. The uniqueness of this one is that I think it had a small pharmacy inside.
And then there was Payne’s and Payne’s back store. Payne’s was on Kenworth Avenue, right on the way to and from school. In fact, when I was hit by the school bus, (read me), it was right in front of back-store Payne’s. Payne’s had a full bottom floor grocery store in the two story house and then right behind the house was a garage that had been converted into a sort-of convenience items store. It had lots of sodas, snacks, candy, milk, eggs and other high turnover products. We rarely went into the front store because everything we kids needed was in the rear. The front and back stores also were run by different people on a daily basis though they most certainly were all owned by the same individuals. What I remember most was that the back-store operator was an older lady with a Beetlejuice Sylvia Sidney, Juno chain-smoker voice.
Just another couple blocks away at the alley of Elmont and Azel was a little place called Bowden’s Bicycle Shop. The bicycle shop, slash convenience item store used to be a simple garage. Mr. Bowden lived in the house there. Old Mr. Bowden was a cranky old guy, but he sold some great candy that wasn’t offered anywhere else. What could be better for kids than great candy and bicycle grease, I ask you.
Finally, there was the Ross Avenue Dairy. Ah, Ross Dairy; responsible for sending many a kid into childhood ice cream comas. If I or my friend Timmy (read me) were fortunate enough to have enough change to afford a cone, there’s where we’d be!
Time for a quick flashback memory:
I also associate the Ross Ave Dairy with a little boy who was the first, (or only), boy I knew who changed his last name. Today I know that this occurs because a ‘new dad’ marries into a family and sometimes decides to adopt the child if the old dad is nowhere to be found. I didn’t know this though as a kid. The kid’s name; we knew him as Steve Hopkins. Steve was a giggly, very likable kid and he always seemed to have money on him. He was a generous boy and for the one summer that he hung out with us Goodman kids, he would treat us to ice cream and milkshakes maybe once or twice a week. The following summer, he came to tell us that his dad had changed his name to Miller. At the time, I didn’t really get it. What was wrong with the name he had? Would my dad change our name someday?
Oh, lest I forget, the Ross Dairy also had a manual cigarette pack dispenser. It was the closest place that the Viceroy brand of cigarettes could be purchased, (mmm, ice cream and tobacco, yummy). I remember this well because on occasion my dad would send me off with 2 quarters so I could buy a pack of Viceroys for him. I never minded this because it meant I’d get a dime and could buy a scoop of ice cream. Yes readers, we kids could buy cigarettes if we wanted.
So in the space of about 16-20 normal city blocks, we kids had access to no fewer than 8 little Mom & Pop places! Everything may have cost a little bit more for the adults, but for us kids, life was great – candy only cost a penny and what adult wasn’t losing a penny here and there? And lest we forget, just another block outside the square I laid out, there was also Irene’s Doughnuts, and Main St Hamburgers.
Here I am….5 decades later. I am in a transition phase of life now and as such, I have much time to think, to speculate about new goals, to reminisce and to plan for the next phase of life.
Where will I go? Where will we go? Will there be anymore growing up? I hope so; stay tuned.