I was born in 1949 and that same year my grandfather, Eldridge Gabriel Radford, “Papa,” went into business for himself, buying a small grocery store and euphemistically dubbing it RADFORD’S SUPERMARKET. Before that he’d worked some time for the Marshall Fields textile plant right beside where he bought the business, at which my grandmother continued to work for a few more years.
The world in the fifties was a much different place, obviously, than today’s world. I spent a lot of my free time in Papa’s store and, as I grew a bit older, began to help out there. Papa had only one full time employee, Walter Smart, the butcher, and as far back as I can remember the two of them were there, up until he sold the store in 1973 and they both retired.
Loading the drink boxes was one of my favorite tasks. There was an outside one in front of the store and one inside. The inside model was a chest type with a lid that lifted up and there were the glass bottles displayed, hanging in racks by the lip around the top. All you could see were the caps, deciding by that what one wanted, then sliding it out of it’s line, then around to the coin slot. There, for the magnanimous sum of six cents, the trap would release so you could pull the drink of choice free. It was loaded from a side door where you hung a bottle from that lip, pushing it in, until the track was full.
The outside model was an upright, tracks tilted, so that when you put your money in, opened the door and made your selection after paying, a bar released as you pulled your drink out, locking back into place as the next one rolled down.
And the candy bars. They were a nickel and seemed about ten times as big as the ones sold today for so much more. There was little packaged ice cream back then, dixie cups were about it. There was a freezer with several varieties(not the six zillion flavors that seem to be available today) that you bought in cones(I liked two scoops of strawberry). Ice cream shops or restaurants are about the only place they come like that anymore.
The meat department back then would probably be shut down in today’s world. I know Mr. Smart, washed his hands regularly, wiped things down all the time, swept and mopped constantly.
But nothing was prepackaged. Cooling cases kept rolls of baloney, sliced ham, cheese loaves, that sort of thing, and boxes of hot dogs on display. The customer would order a pound of this, a half pound of that, and Mr. Smart would slice it off as thick as the customer liked.
A walk-in cooler held big sides of beef and pork hanging to be cut with cleavers as customers wanted, whole chickens packed on ice, extra rolls of meat, and everything was expertly wrapped in cream colored butcher paper and secured with a thick piece of tape. Eggs came in cardboard containers, much the same design as today’s styrofoam models, and everybody saved them, returning them to Papa to pack more into(eggs came from farmers in big layered boxes).
Papa never turned away a soul that needed food. He carried many a people through the month until Social Security checks came in at the beginning of the next month. A stranger could walk in and ask for credit and get it(Papa had many thousands still owed to him when he passed away, long after retirement).
He would take orders over the phone for people who were ill or didn’t have the means to get to the store. I used to help get those orders up and one thing he always impressed upon me was that, if I was looking for a can of green beans to ALWAYS get the brand that was cheapest. He never cheated(maybe not the best word) anyone. He delivered groceries every day and I would help in the summer when there was no school.
The store was open six days a week from seven a.m. to six p.m. He did go to the store in the evenings on Sunday to prepare his order for grocery items that he phoned in to the co-operative warehouse of small grocers on Monday. Tuesday was the day he went to pick it up. I went with him a lot in the summer months. Once there, the order was carefully packed in his pick-up with a cover over the bed, every available inch filled, and I helped unload when we got back to the store.
At the end of the year was inventory time(for tax purposes of course). The whole family pitched in: me, my sisters, a couple of cousins, aunts and uncles, mom. We worked in two person teams(us kids were partnered with an adult), each armed with a pad and several sharp pencils. One would count while the other wrote down an item, then added the total. Us kids anyway always looked on it as fun(go figure).
Whatever man that I am today I learned from watching my Papa deal with people. As I said earlier, he never turned anyone away. That meant the store was always full of both black and white folks. Understand this was as far back as I can remember, about four or five, which would have been mid-fifties. I think my sisters and I all learned from him and Grandma. We had an absent father, who’d left mom to raise three children by herself, and she dated occasionally. Nothing serious though. Not when we were children anyway.
My Papa retired in 1973 and the man who bought the store thought he had a gold mine. A good business with plenty of customers, he made changes that quickly killed it. He cut out all credit and deliveries immediately and raised prices as well. The customers left pretty much after that. Might as well go to the supermarkets was likely their reasoning.
i remember those days fondly, even the time the storage area in back flooded after a hard, long rain. Dickie Smart(the butcher’s son) and I pushed and mopped for hours to get that water up. Fortunately all the boxes of groceries were up on wooden flats.
It was a hard time back then, but a good one too. I think kids today just don’t get the right experiences. The world is a changin’.