I was walking over to my local grocery store just now and for some reason it made me think of my neighborhood mom & pop stores when I was a kid. We didn’t call them convenience stores then; that came later with the dawn of chains like 7-11 and AM/PM. They were just little stores on our street, run by people we knew, our neighbors. It was the way they made their living.
I lived in a small town called Tamaqua, smack in the middle of coal country in northeast Pennsylvania, and a lot of streets had them. We had two on our street, both of them almost right on top of my home. Two doors up was Schroeder’s, a hole-in-the-wall that was run by two aging sisters. One of them was a retired schoolteacher named Emma, the other was the epitome of a cranky old woman, Florence. Emma died and Florence eventually closed the store, which was a creepy, creaky, dark space. She had no patience with kids. It was the era of penny candy and she’d get angry when it took us a while to decide what we wanted. Decisions were hard when you were five with a nickel to burn. Too many choices.
Schroeder’s closing left Pauline’s as the only remaining store on our football field-length street. The Stultzs—Lucky and Pauline—carved a little shop out of the front room of their home. Many times you would walk in and see them sitting in their living room, watching TV; sometimes they’d wait until the inning was over in a baseball game or a commercial came on until they came out to wait on you. They had a large refrigerator with a glass side with cold cuts in it, racks of canned foods, chips, pretzels, bread, Tastycake and Drake cupcakes, candy bars, basic medicinal things like aspirin and band-aids, and a big, blue Pepsi-Cola cooler, that had cold water in it to chill sodas. Bottles of Pepsi and Coke were inside, half-submerged, and when you pulled them out, they were wet and dripping. Pauline would let us buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and put them in the soda cooler first, so they got nice and crisp and cold.
Pauline’s had a front counter which also featured penny candy, and she was a lot nicer about the decision-making process. She also stocked a lot of what are now known as collectible cards: baseball and football, but also TV show and movie ones. Five cards to a pack, wrapped in waxy paper with a questionable slab of bubble gum included. (That gum could slice someone’s throat it was old and hard enough.) My brother and I bought tons of nickel-packets of cards at Pauline’s: Batman (during the 1960s TV show craze), James Bond, Superman, and the Marvel Comics set with the jokey cards. She even let us have the boxes they came in, if we bought the last ones.
My mom used to send me over to Pauline’s all the time, picking up things that would get her—and probably Pauline—arrested these days. “Go get me a couple of packs of Lucky Strike … and a quarter-pound of cold meat.” Our family was big on what we called “cold meat,” although I doubt a lot of it could really be referred to as meat of any kind. Sometimes bologna, sometimes pressed ham, sometimes (ugh) pimento loaf. I hated pimento loaf. But Pauline would serve it up, cigarettes and all, and I’d usually have enough left over to buy some candy or—better yet—some cards. Baseball cards were my court of last resort. Once I saw the Bond, Superman, and Batman cards, that was all I wanted. Occasionally Pauline got in a small stack of comic books, the covers either totally ripped off or with their top third gone, usually for a nickel a piece. Later I found out the covers were supposed to be returned to distributors for retailer credit, and the books themselves were supposed to be destroyed, but someone jobbed them out to stores like Pauline’s for resale. A comic book black market.
On warm summer nights, we kids would sit out in front of Pauline’s, dashing in and out of the store for sodas and candy. We would raise the ire of the next door neighbor, the much-hated Mrs. Bubel, an old lady who would quickly call the police if a strange car lingered too long in the space outside her home. Mrs. Bubel would regularly harangue us about how noisy we were and shoo us away by threatening to call the cops, but Pauline and Lucky didn’t care. To them we were money in the bank, a surefire income stream, parsed out in pennies, nickels and dimes all night long, or at least until closing time around 9:00 PM.
Pauline and Lucky eventually retired and the store closed up. I don’t know if it became part of their house again, maybe repurposed into a new sitting room. Our street was left without a neighborhood store. By that time, we had moved into my grandparents’ old house, which my mom inherited when they died. That meant a new store, a little farther away in a prime location, the corner of Broad Street and Stadium Hill, run by Joe Price.
All of that is gone now, replaced by 7-11s and AM/PMs, fronted by gas pumps. They call them convenience stores, but they’re all charmless, anonymous places, and the people behind the counters are as nameless as the people standing in line. My local grocery store is a medium-size Smart & Final, and while I’m grateful for it being just a couple of blocks away, it’s not the same as nipping over to Pauline’s for a quarter-pound of bologna or some Marvel cards, not to mention a pack of Luckys for mom. I wish I had a snapshot of six-year-old me, running back across our narrow street with a couple of packs of cigs … and having to head back because I forgot to ask for matches.
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