My Father’s Grocery Store

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As I remember, I was nine years old when my father decided that the time had come for me to “help out” in his grocery store. The year was 1910, and the place was Mansfield, Ohio. Twelve years would pass before I escaped completely from that thralldom.

In the beginning my duties were as small as I was: taking an occasional deposit to the bank and obtaining change, collecting small accounts, and delivering orders to customers who lived nearby and wanted a few groceries in a hurry. I also scrubbed the mold—it was harmless—from the hams and sides of bacon that hung in our back room, and from “Lebanon bologna,” a wonderful smoked summer sausage which we bought in barrels, it you please, from a maker in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

I do not remember the amount of my pay, but I suspect that I was doing a little work for the allowance I would have received in any case. And I had one compensation enjoyed by no other youngster in town. My father loved baseball, and every day the team was in town, except Saturdays and Sundays, we were in the bleachers. (On Saturdays we had too much business in the store; and on Sundays, in our family, we went only to church.) I can still remember Mansfield’s first baseman, Zeke Reynolds; a third baseman named Tim Flood who had an arm about as strong as an old maid’s; and a pitcher, Jeff Holmquist, who once went twenty-seven straight innings, won his game, and retired from baseball with a permanently ruined arm.

As time passed I became a kind of junior clerk, waiting on customers when my father and the two clerks were busy, putting up orders, and packaging the many commodities that we bought in bulk. (Packaging in the modern supermarket appalls me, and I cannot reconcile myself to the lavish use of paper bags. We never used one if we could avoid it. Did the customer want to carry home a purchase of six or eight articles? We sold him a basket.) There was sugar, granulated, powdered, light brown, and dark brown, to be put up in two-pound and five-pound bags; an insecticide called Slug Shot, which we sold in one-pound packages; and coffee—always coffee.

Coffee deserves special mention. My father sold Chase & Sanborn’s coffees almost exclusively. We carried the premium Seal Brand, which even then came in tins, but our big seller was a Santos that we sold under the private brand of Angle’s Lunch Coffee. (Twenty-five cents a pound when I first remember it.) We received it in sixty-pound bags direct from Boston, ground it in our own mill, and packaged it in purple glazed-paper bags supplied by Chase & Sanborn. We also carried Mocha, Java, and Maleberry Java in the bean. Try to find any of the three in stores today.

Tea, too, was a bulk commodity. Although we stocked Lipton’s, Salada, and Chase & Sanborn’s Orange Pekoe in packages, most of the tea was hulled out of a row of big canisters which stood on a shelf behind the coffee mill. We had four: one each for young hyson, oolong, gunpowder, and spider-leg Japan. In comparison with coffee we sold little tea, so incoming shipments were infrequent. But they were exciting occasions. Tea was shipped then, and may be still, in big cubic containers of paper-lined lead foil. These were covered with straw matting, bound with split bamboo, and marked with Chinese and Japanese characters. Foreign foods were no novelty in our store—we had sardines from France, Portugal, and Norway; condiments and jams from England and Scotland; grapes and raisins from Spain; bulk olives from Italy—but here, in the great packages of tea, was the mysterious East. Nothing quite equalled them.

I am sure that the store’s volume, in coffee and tea, was insignificant by today’s standards, but fifty years ago it was large enough to deserve careful cultivation. Every Christmas brought a substantial gift from Chase & Sanborn: an inlaid tea caddy, a silver coffee service, a silver tray. These were cherished, not so much as possessions but as evidences of a relationship that somehow seemed to transcend the merely commercial.

Our own packaging of sugar, coffee, tea, and other commodities was prevailing trade practice. The grocery store of 1912 bore a far closer resemblance to the store of 1882, when my father first entered the business, than it did to the store of 1921, the last year of which I have direct knowledge.

In 1912 we still sold many kinds of food in bulk only. On the floor stood paper-lined bushel baskets containing navy beans, marrowfat beans, kidney beans, lima beans, dried peas, split peas, oatmeal, and rolled oats. (Oatmeal and rolled oats are not the same.) We had tubs of salt mackerel and kegs of sour, dill, and sweet pickles. Cheese came only in wheels or bricks and was not, thank God, processed. In the summer, if sales were slow, oil would begin to ooze from the last segment of a wheel of Herkimer. A day or two later maggots would appear, and simultaneously, through some kind of telepathy, our one customer who would buy cheese only when it had maggots in it. (I always wondered whether he ate maggots and all or picked them out first, but I am sure his cheese was unsurpassed in richness and pungency.)

There were times when selling bulk goods meant hard work. Vinegar, for instance. Because ours was a “quality” store we stocked vinegar in bottles—cider vinegar, tarragon, and white wine—but most of what we sold was drawn from a barrel into containers which our customers supplied.