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 remember 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, an A&P store at Sixth 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 IGA at Kennedy Blvd (formerly Third St.) and Jefferson. All these photos are from friends on the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page. Kroger eventually moved down to the plaza of stores at Third and Gallatin. I don’t remember the layout of the A&P too clearly, but my parents did shop there in the 1960s and collected S&H Green Stamps. What fun when we filled a whole book! I also remember being interested in a girl whom I’d met at a high school countywide band concert. From a nearby community, she happened to be at the A&P one summer day when I was there. She and I strolled around the aisles for a while, joking around, and she went on her way. That was our complete relationship, beginning middle and end. But a girl had noticed me!
Three things I remember about Tri City, which like the A&P operated till about the late 1970s, were the hand-drawn price signs, the Juicy Fruit and Fruit 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. 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.
I found some websites that discuss the economic and cultural history of supermarkets, for instance, http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/money_13.html The site mentions the Piggly Wiggly company, interesting to me because my dad began his trucking career hauling citrus from the South to Piggly Wiggly stores in central Illinois. But chains like that and others would eventually crowd out privately owned stores. Even chains eventually became endangered in the face of larger companies. My hometown has Aldi’s and Harmon’s, and the Wal-Mart dominates.
Supermarkets developed in tandem with American affluence and automobile culture. (See http://www.groceteria.com/about/a-quick-history-of-the-supermarket/) Older markets specialized in meats or dry goods, but “super markets” carried a variety of selections displayed as a kind of journey, with certain kinds of products first, ice cream and frozen food toward the end of the last aisle, and treats like candy near the check-out. This was exactly the layout of the Day ‘n’ Nite that burned in ‘67. Supermarkets revolutionized food shopping and created numerous other cultural changes.
In certain ways, kitchen items came to represent American culture. As many people know, a notable Cold War exchange happened in 1959 between Khrushchev and Nixon, inspired by the typical contents of a kitchen. Nixon argued the merits of American capitalism as he and the Soviet leader toured displays of household items. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/opinion/24safire.html?_r=2 Not so long afterward, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made art of things like beer cans, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup labels. Pop art continues to capture public imagination. Food for additional reflection (no pun intended): how American well-being, even American creativity, became handily symbolized by grocery and kitchen products.
And speaking of brand names: one of my favorite “bathroom books” is What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons by Warren Dotz and Jim Morton (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Leafing through this book I think back on childhood trips to the grocery store via characters and products like:
Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The Campbell Soup Kids
Florida Orange Bird
Funny Face soft drink mix characters, like Goofy Grape and Loud-Mouth Lemon
Big Shot Chocolate
Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya)
Jolly Green Giant
Sugar Pops Pete
Sugar Bear for Sugar Crisp cereal
Tony the Tiger
Quisp and Quake cereals
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Coco Pops)
Punchy of Hawaiian Punch
What happy memories of everyday moments! I also remember a brand of cereal in the early 1960s called Kellogg’s OKs, which had Yogi Bear on the box. The cereal bits were little O’s and K’s. I suppose it represents the triumph of marketing and consumerism to draw a close connection between advertising icons, brand names, and one’s childhood memories. But at least one can be aware of the larger cultural context of one’s life.
How do you end a set of recollections of grocery stores? You don’t, because it’s a part of your life that’s ongoing, even if you think of your trips as a chore rather than grist for recollection. My father hauled his elderly self to the supermarket each week, purchasing bargains and using his coupons, right up till his last few days. So will most of us.