- Historic Sites
My Father’s Grocery Store
It was a lot of work, but somehow running a retail food store in the pre-cellophane era was rewarding
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
I wish I could say that all the “carriage trade” customers were like Peter Scholl. A few were so insufferable that they aroused prejudices in me from which I have never escaped—prejudices which, in fact, I cherish. They were the ones who drove around in White Steamers, belonged to the country club, played golf, said “marasheeno” instead of “maraskeeno” and “tomahto” instead of “tomayto,” were alternately imperious and condescending with all of us at the store, and rarely paid their bills on time. I have never joined a country club, I gave up golf after one brief whirl, I say “maraskeeno” and “tomayto,” I treat clerks with courtesy, and I pay my bills promptly. … Page a psychiatrist.
In happy contrast were the Canarys. Tom Canary was a “white-wing”—he swept up the horse droppings from the streets around the square. His route took him past the store, and he frequently stopped to place an order. Whenever possible, I delivered it, because I found the sight of old Mrs. Canary smoking a corncob pipe endlessly fascinating. To this day, I have seen no other woman indulge in this pleasure.
Mrs. Canary smoked Five Brothers tobacco. I doubt that the brand is still on the market. And what, I wonder, has happened to some of our other steady sellers—Star Brand plug, Red Band and Mail Pouch scrap, fine-cut under any name, and Bull Durham and Duke’s Mixture? I say nothing of cigarettes: in Ohio the seller had to pay a stiff license fee, and the demand, before World War I, was too small to justify our handling them.
I look back, with mixed feelings, on another element of our business: the sale of Fourth of July fireworks. We stocked heavily: torpedoes, firecrackers, cannon crackers ranging in length from two to twelve inches, grasshoppers, Roman candles, sky rockets, pinwheels, fountains, and relatively harmless sparklers. Part of our stock was displayed in the front windows of the store and part on sidewalk tables. Since the clerks and my father were usually busy inside, I took care of the sidewalk.
There, for ten days, I would alternate between excitement and fear. To sell fireworks was fun, but to watch men paw through Roman candles with one hand while the other hand held a lighted cigar—that was not fun. Moreover, the mild admonitions of a twelveyear-old boy had little influence on adults. We escaped accident only through good luck.
This was the bad side of fireworks; the good side came out on Fourth of July night. Since my father was able to buy at cost, he always laid in for his family a more lavish assortment of fireworks than anyone else in the neighborhood. On the whole, it was his show. The children, un- der close surveillance, were allowed to wave sparklers, and the older ones were trusted with an occasional Roman candle, but it was my father who nailed the pinwheels to the fine hard maples that bordered the street in front of our house and fired the sky rockets from a specially constructed trough. The display was memorable, and no one was ever hurt.
The Fourth of July, in my boyhood, had only two rivals in the calendar of events. One was the annual grocers’ picnic. The great day approached at snail’s speed, but it never failed to arrive. At 7 A.M. the town’s grocers and clerks, their wives and families, with heavily laden picnic baskets, boarded a Baltimore & Ohio special train for Sandusky, fifty miles north on Lake Erie. By nine o’clock the train had reached its destination, and everyone ran up the gangplank of the old side-wheeler that plied between the city and Cedar Point, three miles across the bay.
Fifty years ago the Point was paradise. (It may still be.) For excitement it offered a huge roller coaster; for the “fast” set it provided a dance hall and wine rooms, where the very good wines of the Lake Erie islands could be bought by the glass; but for everyone from the land-locked city of Mansfield the great attraction was a marvelous beach sloping so gently that even small children could wade far out in safety. Here our family spent most of the day, the women dressed in middy blouses with long sleeves, baggy bloomers, and long black stockings; the men and boys almost as amply clothed. (I wonder where we changed. I don’t remember bathhouses.)
About dusk, and all too soon, came departure time. Once more the trip across the bay, then the boarding of the B&O special. Many of the picnickers, tired out because unaccustomed to sun and water and stuffed with the contents of the baskets, would curl up to sleep. They rarely succeeded. There were always some who had underestimated the strength of the island wines or overestimated their own capacities, so the return trip was at best noisy, and at worst marked by a few brawls. But these were incidents readily overlooked even by our abstinent family. Nothing could mar the pleasures of the grocers’ picnic. Even the weather was beneficent. I do not remember a rainy day.
The other great day was Christmas, which I suppose I looked forward to with especial zest because it was my birthday. But for the joys of Christmas I paid a price. There were two hundred Christmas trees to be boxed, and I was a helper, though not a willing one. My father had discovered years before my time that by nailing trees in boxes, which served as standards, he could get larger sales and higher prices. All year long he saved the fine white pine packing cases in which all canned goods were delivered. The trees would arrive about the time my Christmas vacation began, and from then until the twenty-fourth of December I would be busy with hammer and saw.