Snapshot 04: The Family Business …

Long ago and far away, in my childhood home of Tamaqua, PA, I was a very small (and young) part of a family business. To be honest, it was just a store that I visited. I never worked for it, I was too young. But when I stop and think back on it from this point of view, sixty or so years down the line, I know I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what it was.

My grandfather was George L. Meredith, and he owned a stationery store and print shop on Broad Street—the main drag—in downtown Tamaqua (that’s a painted—and somewhat faded—sign on the back of the building on Rowe Street, pictured above). It was a business he worked at and built up over decades, and his two sons, John and Louis, and my mother, Jane, also worked at the store in various times of their lives. My mom quit after the war, when she had my brother and me, to be a full-time homemaker. John and Louis, or Uncle Louie as we called him, were part of the business all their lives.

The front of the store sold stationery and office supplies, along with children’s books (not sure why, but I do remember Little Golden Books being there, along with a selection of coloring and activity books) and Hallmark Cards. My grandfather was most proud of that latter product line, since he had an exclusive license to sell in that territory. I remember his dismay when we walked into the new Moser’s newsstand (they had moved to a larger location) around 1963 or so, and he saw they were selling greeting cards. He turned over one of them to see the familiar Hallmark logo and quietly muttered, “son of a bitch,” which I knew was on the “do-not-say” list.

He was an intense old geezer, an inveterate reader, a caustic commentator, and an irascible man. He smoked like a fiend and had a huge collection of pipes, one of which particularly fascinated me. It had a tiny bowl and a very long stem, and later in life I realized it was probably some kind of opium pipe, although I strongly doubt he ever used the drug. If he didn’t have a pipe going, he had a pack of Kent cigarettes somewhere nearby. And he always had a book going, too, some kind of paperback, usually a Western (although I remember seeing my first Signet James Bond paperback there, From Russia With Love) and there was always a new stack of them sitting near his favorite chair in the living room.

Left, top: Me at around nine months old with Gramps in his favorite chair; left, bottom: my mom with Gramps; and right, the way i remember him best, with a paperback and a cigarette.

He was married to Cora and she was four years older than him, an unusual age difference for that time. I always thought they despised each other. They were constantly battling. My grandmother was first generation Pennsylvania Dutch, and while she was a great cook—her meat pies were amazing—she was always a bit … well, let’s say dotty. She looked just like the grandma out of the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting: short, stout, apple-cheeked, always with food in hand or nearby. Being the youngest of six grandsons, she could never remember my name. I don’t know how many times I heard my grandfather utter, “For Christ’s sake, Cora, leave the kid alone …” But when she died, he went along with her 13 days later. I always thought he just didn’t want to live without her.

I called him Gramps; his wife was Nana, as opposed to my father’s parents who were Francie and the ungainly Nana Sassaman. Somehow the formality of that latter name fit to a tee, since she was—at least as I remember her—an unyielding and imposing figure who scared the bejesus out of me. And while none of my grandparents were particularly warm and affectionate, I remember Gramps as being a very giving person, often buying me comic books and toys, and always answering my frequent “Can I take it home with me?” query with a bemused smile and a gentle “Yes, you can take it home.”

I always felt I was his favorite and I loved spending every Wednesday and Sunday at his house. He would take me downtown with him to his store where he operated the Linotype machine, this behemoth that set hot type our of silvery ingots (the Internet says they were mainly made of tin). I remember it being a gigantic machine, like something out of a steampunk fantasy, with a keyboard grafted on to it. He would sit and type all day. His printing company did mainly letterpress printing and the backroom of his store was filled with presses, paper, cutting machines, and all kinds of metal type … in essence the very definition of DO NOT TOUCH. I was particularly fascinated with the paper cutter, a huge, electric table-sized machine that they used to trim down everything, especially raffle tickets, which was their stock-in-trade, along with programs.

He got me my first library card, partly because he was one of the founders of the Tamaqua Public Library, but mainly because he wanted me to read. My first book was the classic Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff. I think it took me all of three minutes to read, and he promptly took me back across the street to get another book. That library card got me through many summers. I didn’t swim, so while all my pals were at the Bungalow on hot summer days, enjoying the pool, I was on the front porch with a book (or comics). I remember the year I discovered the Time/Life series “This Fabulous Century,” and I took out each volume and poured over them like it was some kind of anthropological discovery. (The books were a decade-by-decade history of the 20th century, profusely illustrated with pop culture and historical images.) I owe him the debt of a lifetime of loving books and reading, a deep passion that continues to this day. Yep, that Grand Canyon sure is amazing, but where’s the bookstore?

He was the secretary of one of the many volunteer fire companies in town and everyone called him the Governor. So much so, that I finally decided—once I learned what a governor was—that he was the chief executive of the state of Pennsylvania. Everyone in town seemed to know him, so it made total sense to me.

You have to be a particular type of successful businessman to have your own brand of staples.

I never appreciated what it meant to run a small-town (or any kind of) business. At one point in time, I believe he had a second store in the next town over, Lansford, but I don’t recall ever visiting it, and it may have been in name only, some kind of licensing deal with someone else running the show. Towards the end of his life, he slowed down a bit and left the business to his kids when he died. And as usual, without that strong guiding influence, the business failed. Uncle Louie turned out to be a major pain in the ass. Mistakes were made and the George L. Meredith Co., Inc. went out of business. That picture up top was taken in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I’m not sure if the sign is still there or painted over. Either way, it went like the business, slowly fading into oblivion.

I sometimes look in the mirror and see my grandfather looking back. He was that much of an influence on my life, in so many ways. Besides my love of books and reading, I think I have printers ink in my blood. I get my sarcastic sense of humor from him, along with my impatience … like him, I don’t easily suffer fools. And I like to think I’m pragmatic like him and a bit cynical, at times harsh but fair. You always knew where you stood with him. I like to think people know that with me, too.

I wish I knew more about him and especially the family business. A lot of this stuff has just faded into long-lost family history. But that photo above of him sitting on his front porch—in a house I would eventually live in after his passing—lost in a book and smoking a cigarette, yet dressed in a suit, because that’s how they dressed in those days—is how I’ll always remember him. Take away the cancer stick and the suit and you have me, sitting out on the balcony here in Coronado, losing myself in a book for a few precious hours, like I did earlier today.

Thanks for that, Gramps.

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