by Jack "Bomber" Bennett
GCHS Class of '66
Imagine today, asking your 10 or 11 year-old to run “downthestore” and pick up some groceries. Would you A. trust him or her with 20 bucks; B. worry that they might be kidnapped by gypsies on the way, or C. hope they could make the trip without passing out from fatigue?
Today, a kid might have to go a couple of miles to find a store, and that’s if they could leave their video games long enough to do it. And I’m not talking about a Wa Wa or 7-Eleven. I’m talking about a place where you could buy real supplies like toilet paper, canned goods, vegetables, dairy products, bakery items, lunch and butchered meats. Sounds like a lengthy trip to a huge box store would be the only answer these days.
But, when I was a kid growing up in Gloucester during the 50’s and 60’s, it seemed like every neighborhood had a place where you could actually buy the necessities of life. Gloucester had many great little Mom and Pop businesses that helped make up the fabric of the city. These places varied from simple grocery stores, drugs stores, and bakeries, down to the candy and novelty shops. You never had to walk very far to find one because there was at least one store on every other corner.
Many of the corner stores were there for generations. Their owners witnessed the progression
Some store owners knew you so well, you could buy stuff “on the I” meaning the owner kept an IOU and you paid him at the end of the month. Try doing that at the Ac-a-me or Super Walmart today without a major credit card. Most folks in Gloucester lived paycheck to paycheck and usually ran out of money before they ran out of week. Store credit to buy food was sometimes the only way folks could make it and feed 4 or 5 kids.
Now remember, this was back in the days when most families had only one car, if any, and a lot of Moms didn’t even know how to drive (mine didn’t). So, either your Mom made the trek, or she would scribble out a list, hand you a few bucks and off you went. And Heaven help you if you didn’t bring back ALL the change. If you were lucky, she might let you have a nickel to buy some penny candy.
Most of the stores were independently owned, but were affiliated with a group of food chains like the Unity or Quaker brands. When I was 12, I worked at the Kadlec Quaker Food Market on the corner of Morris and Broadway. Paul Kadlec was the owner. As I recall, Paul was a gentle man, slow to temper, but he didn’t take any crap. And, he was well liked by everyone who shopped in his small but neat store.
The store was no bigger than your average house, but there was produce, paper products, canned goods, cereals, soda, and a complete butcher area that included a cold case, butcher block and walk-in fridge.
My job was as an “Order Boy” meaning when I wasn’t bagging onions, potatoes or groceries, I was out delivering them on a bicycle—one of those clunky types with a huge basket on the front. People would call the Market and make an order, we put it in some paper bags, and I rode to the house and delivered them. And, I can tell you I delivered groceries in weather that would make any mailman proud. Neither rain, nor hail, nor sleet could keep Mrs. Jones from her husband’s scrapple.
I worked mostly for tips and on a good Saturday I could bring home around 20 to 25 dollars. At 50 cents a trip, I had to do a lot of pedaling. You do the math. But, I survived.
I know time marches on and things change, but not always do they change for the better. The small business owner is a dying breed in this country and it is a shame. When I look back on my youth in Gloucester City in the 60’s I realize how fortunate I was to be in a place where life was good—not easy, but good. I hope it never ends for those who still live there.
Now, run downthestore and get me some lunch meat, eggs and penny candy.