Monday, December 14, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 1

Still in a nostalgic mood … Maybe the first draft of an eventual essay...

This past week I decided to add an additional grocery store to my weekly errands. I’ve been shopping at a Schnuck’s store near our home. Schnuck’s is a local company, founded in the 1930s, and has branched out into a few other cities during the past few years. I like the store near our home, but the other customers can be oblivious. I’ve nearly collided several times with people who push their carts very fast, with no regard for others who are “merging“ from the aisles. I try to make eye contact with folks but they’re in a “zone”, finishing their errand in a hurry. (Sometimes I’m in a “zone,” too. By definition you wouldn’t know if you were oblivious or not….)

But this past week, I couldn’t find an item at this store, so onward to the next-closest Schnuck’s, and what a difference! Some shoppers were disengaged, but no one pushed their carts around like they were in a damned roller derby. The décor of this store was pleasant too; in certain outside aisles, false ceilings made the space homey, somehow.

I don’t necessarily love to shop for groceries, but I love grocery stores as a “space.” I feel a little wistful when we move from a community and no longer patronize favorite supermarkets; such places occupy large portions of weekly time and attention, after all, and sometimes you get to know the employees, too. I actually said goodbye and “thanks” to some of the folks who work at the Akron grocery where I shopped before we moved to St. Louis.

I still remember the basic organization of the Day ’n’ Nite stores in my hometown. The store located at Seventh and Orchard burned in (I think) 1967, when I was ten, and was replaced by the store at Fifth and Orchard which remained open until the late 1980s or early 1990s. In that earlier store, we entered the front door (beside the mechanical horse and race car rides) and proceeded straight ahead into the aisle with breakfast cereals, which of course was one of my favorite foods. The cash registers were to the left. As we went down that aisle and around to the left, we entered a shorter aisle which ended at the comic books! Other aisles were laid out at right angles to these first ones. Funny that I remember the basic layout so clearly, considering my age at the time. Ice cream and “TV dinners” were at the end of the last aisle. Dad cooked from scratch, but I do that we tried frozen dinners one evening as we watched Jackie Gleason’s show. Frozen food wasn’t so great back then.

I was still into comic books when the new Day ‘n’ Nite opened, so I liked that section. You came into the store and walked past the check-out lines and past the manager’s station (which was slightly elevated; the manager was Lily Ritchie), and the magazines and comic books were on the other side of the manager’s station. As you browsed the magazines, the produce section was behind you. I collected issues of the comic “Enemy Ace” during my phase of building World War I airplane models. The sexy magazines were supposed to be in the back section of the magazines but were sometimes left in front next to the Redbooks and McCalls. I was afraid someone would see me look at them, so I didn’t, but the covers were usually “intriguing” enough.

During my growing-up years Vandalia also had a Kroger store at Seventh and Gallatin, and the Tri City grocery, which was part of the First National Bank building (the old Dieckmann Hotel) along Fifth Street downtown. Vandalia also had an A&P store at Sixth and Gallatin, and an IGA at Kennedy Blvd (formerly Third St.) and Jefferson. Kroger eventually moved down to the plaza of stores at Third and Gallatin. Three things I remember about Tri City, which operated till about the late 1970s, were the hand-drawn price signs, the Lucky Stripe gum at the check out, and the row of seats where older folks sat. We’d sometimes see a widowed cousin, Homer Fisher, sitting there; he was always glad to talk to us. We must’ve gotten Tootsie Roll suckers at Kroger, because shadowy childhood recollections of the store still pop into mind (no pun intended) when I see ads for those suckers and, occasionally, treat myself to one. I remember aspects of all these stores in Vandalia because my dad was such a bargain shopper; he would drive all around town to get the best prices. Whatever he saved on the price of bananas, he must’ve spent on gasoline for multiple errands, but he didn’t seem to consider that. I think he just liked bargain-shopping.

Another memory of Dad concerns the (in retrospect) amazing policy of Day ‘n’ Nite, where faithful customers could charge their groceries like a bar tab: the cashier printed the total on a card, you signed your name, and you could pay the bill later. What a great honor system, and probably something even a small-town store couldn’t do today. Dad always got upset if our total got over $50, which at the time represented four or five major shopping trips. Although Dad did most of the grocery shopping, he’d scold Mom for letting the total get too high. So typical of Dad: quick to disapprove, but a devoted provider.

During the 70s and 80s, when going barefoot was a fad, shopping for groceries was pleasant without shoes. (I like to think of summertime during wintry weather like today’s!) You’d see teenagers and a few adults heading shoeless into the store with fair regularity. On a hot day, the feeling of the cool linoleum on your feet as you navigated the air-conditioned aisles was delightful, particularly as you strolled past the frozen foods.

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