Many of you have experienced the annoying feeling of being in the process of preparing a meal only to discover that a needed ingredient is nowhere to be found. Perhaps you had a similar experience when cleaning your home and discovered no cleanser, wax or window cleaner. Tackling a much-needed repair can find you throwing your hands up in disgust when something as simple as a particular size screw cannot be located.
So, what do you do?
Usually, you run out to the nearest supermarket or home improvement center to get what is needed. That is what you do today but what about in the past? Those from the pre-seventies, recall that we ran down to the neighborhood store. So, what memories do you have of the corner store, or what some called a “mom” and “pop” store, back in the day?
How well I remember Moe’s Grocery Store located on the corner of 44th and Wallace Streets in my old West Philadelphia neighborhood. I frequented this store at the behest of my mother but only for small items; items that she needed immediately and could not wait for a trip to the Acme, Food Fair, Penn Fruit or Atlantic and Pacific (A&P). Why only small items? Quite simply, the corner store prices were much higher. My mother also viewed them as “rip-offs” because of a practice used by many of the corner stores. You might recall the practice of the ‘book” where customers purchased items and the store owner recorded the purchase in a book with a customer promise to pay later, usually on pay day. It appeared the customer never received a receipt. I observed many arguments disputing charges on the book when it came to pay. Yet, the neighborhood customers continued to come; they had no options. My mother was also displeased with the quality of the items sold, in particular, the consumable items which frequently were not fresh. As much as I disliked going to Moe’s Corner Grocery Store, I did not hesitate to go there for one reason; I could purchase the most delicious “Jewish Pickles” found anywhere. To this day, because of my experiences with Moe’s, I will hunt for a corner grocery to purchase a “Jewish Pickle.” I love these pickles! Also, while living in a predominately Black neighborhood, did any of you, like me, have a white classmate in your elementary or junior high school class? If this was the case, it was generally the proprietor’s child. White store owner’s families typically lived above their grocery store, back in the day.
At the age of ten, I recall my mother and others in the neighborhood finally had an alternative, a corner store that was different from practically all neighborhood corner stores at the time. This store, at the corner of 44th and Fairmount Avenue was Black owned and operated. The store was extremely clean, very orderly and well-stocked.
I never knew the name of this store, but everyone in the neighborhood referred to it as “The Colored Store.” We patronized this store but like most other corner stores, it was for small items or items needed immediately. The costs for items at this store were a major issue. As I learned later in life, “The Colored Store,” like most Black establishments had to pay more than white stores for items they secured resulting in items sold at higher prices, an issue that Black businesses face today, as they did, back in the day.
While the corner store that specialized in household goods and food items may not be store you recall, I suspect that the corner variety store is another issue. It is almost impossible to have grown up in one of our Philadelphia neighborhoods without memories of corner variety stores. These stores usually sold limited non-perishable food items but also ice cream and dairy products. In my neighborhood, the variety store was “Brown’s” that was eventually sold and became ‘Cherry’s. Brown’s and Cherry’s were both named after their proprietors. While these variety stores sold a wide assortment of “goodies,” it is the candy that I remember the most. Like many of you, I had my favorites.
Mike and Ike was my favorite then and more than seventy years later, remains my favorite today. Popular items sold at most neighborhood variety stores included greeting cards, pantry items, small goods, ice cream, popsicles, magazines, newspapers and sodas. Items such as penny candy, potato chips, pretzels and candy bars could also be purchased in most of the neighborhood variety stores. I definitely remember purchasing Duncan Yo-Yos at Brown’s and later Cherry’s variety store when ownership changed. Whenever I drive through my old neighborhood, I make every effort to pass by the location where Brown’s and Cherry’s once stood. For years, the building stood there boarded up, but now it has been torn down leaving just a faint memory of the life of corner variety stores, back in the day.
I cannot focus on the corner grocery or the variety stores without reflecting on another popular corner store of the past, the corner drug store. You may recall that there was a drug store in most neighborhoods. I suspect that many of you can that grew up in the fifties and sixties can still recall trips to your neighborhood drug store where you sat at the counter to consume a fountain soda, sundae or a milk shake. But no matter the type of corner store, they have been significantly reduced and in many instances they have disappeared completely.
So, for those of you that were not around during the corner store era, search on -line for one of the corner stores, variety stores or drug stores that have remain in existence. If you can locate one, then you will be able to experience what many of us fondly remember from back in the day.