My Father’s Grocery Store

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I was fatuous enough to think that I would escape this chore when I went to college. I didn’t. I sometimes suspect that boxing Christmas trees, like my experience with some of Mansfield’s elite, left me with a psychosis. Never since have I touched the simplest carpenter’s tools except under urgent necessity.

The Christmas-tree trade was my last experience with the grocery store. In fact, my days as a clerk ended with the summer of 1917, after I had finished my junior year in high school. For three months I worked full-time. I opened the store at 6 A.M. A few minutes later the truck gardener appeared, his wagon loaded with vegetables of a freshness rarely encountered today: green onions, green turnips, kohlrabi (who now knows kohlrabi?), radishes (especially the slender white icicles), carrots, leaf lettuce, green and wax beans that really snapped, peas in pods that crackled when opened—all pulled no later than the preceding afternoon. As the summer advanced, sweet corn came on the market—first the Early Evergreen, then the scraggly but delicious Golden Bantam with its big yellow kernels in four double rows and the wonderful Country Gentleman whose kernels didn’t grow in rows, and finally the large white Stowell’s Evergreen, lord of all the sweet corns. No hybrids these, but the true varieties, with a flavor and a succulence lost forever.

All summer there were berries: strawberries, blackberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, and huckleberries shipped from the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, my father’s boyhood home. These were his special care. For hours each day he would stand at a counter, turning each quart from its original wooden box into a new one. In the process he would pick out any that were soft or mouldy. At the same time the larger ones managed to land on top, and somehow the thirty-two quarts of the standard crate became thirty-four quarts. In the winter, by similar necromancy, the contents of a container of bulk oysters expanded in the same proportion.

The vegetables, the berries, the tomatoes, the cantaloupe and watermelons, the peaches and pears and plums and early apples that appeared before the end of the summer, were offered for sale not inside the store but in front of it. The fruits were displayed in bushel baskets, berries and garden vegetables were ranged on long tables, and watermelons made a row near the curb.

In the winter the same outdoor tables held smoked sausage and fresh sausage in the gut—far superior to the stuff that comes in cloth bags—pudding meat, souse, and head cheese, all produced by local farmers. Spring saw the tables loaded with sassafras root and Richland County maple syrup, at least the equal of the more famous products from the Western Reserve and Vermont.

My working day, that summer of 1917, lasted from 6 A.M. until 6 P.M. Until 6 P.M. , that is, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Monday, for some historic reason which no one remembered, we stayed open until 9 P.M. ; on Saturday until 11 P.M. My father, as reluctant a riser as I am, arrived at the store between 7:30 and 8 o’clock in the morning. Even in my time he had given up the Monday night stint—there was little business—but on Saturday night he stayed to shut up shop. This meant balancing the cash register, computing his personal grocery bill for the week, making a final inspection, and examining the fruits and berries to see whether there were any which could not be expected to survive until Monday. Those which looked doubtful he took home, and on Sunday afternoon my mother converted them into preserves or canned them.

Arriving home about midnight, my father embarked on a program that never varied. First, he bathed and shaved in preparation for church the following morning. Then he dressed, at least to the extent of trousers and undershirt. Next, he addressed himself to a snack. If oysters were in season, he would have half a pint raw, seasoned with vinegar and salt and pepper. For the rest of the year his preference was cove oysters (in cans) or his best sardines. Following the first course came half of one of the pies my mother had baked that morning, and then three or four cups of coffee. The food gone, he read the Saturday Evening Post until, in spite of the coffee, he found himself nodding. And so to bed. I doubt that the most ardent concertgoer, the most dedicated devotee of the theatre, ever found more pleasure in music or the stage than my father derived from his simple Saturday indulgences.

The pre-supermarket grocery store called for long hours and hard work. Ours, at least, yielded only a modest return. The peak of my father’s earnings came during and after World War I, when he netted, without charging anything for his own services, about $5,000 a year. In the 1920’s, chain-store competition began to hurt. Business dropped off, yet he managed, with the invaluable aid of my mother, who worked harder even than he did, to maintain a large house, feed the family well, and bring the last of eight children to maturity. When he sold the store in 1939, after fifty-seven years, it was no forced sale, but one dictated by an arthritic condition which made long hours on his feet impossible. And I am proud to say that all his bills were paid, and that he ended up with a small surplus.