Yesterday's Magazette

6 – The Grocery Store

Working At The Grocery Store

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By William Easton

The other day I watched a young man roll carts back into the supermarket where I shopped. I was reminded of those high school years when I had worked at a small grocery store. Those two years were profitable – not only for the college savings college – but for the business experience lasting my working lifetime. No, I did not continue in the grocery business. Although having watched the movie Iron Lady I was impressed that Dame Margaret Thatcher rose from helping out at her father’s grocery to become Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister.

The county seat where I was raised had a population of about 5000. At least four small chain grocery stores did a brisk business in the 1950’s. Also there was a meat market and a bakery. My mother didn’t drive. So, when my father was in the World War II military service, she often took me, her youngest, on an almost daily trip to bring home provisions. If I had been a good helper, my reward was one of those bakery jelly donuts sold two for a nickel. My parents shopped at the A & P store closet to our home. When I got a job at the smaller Grand Union in the next block, they switched patronage, although my dad missed his “Eight O’Clock” coffee.

Both of those groceries had begun in the Mid Nineteenth Century as tea importers. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company(A & P) and Grand Union capitalizing on the victorious side in the Civil War. (Apparently the predominantly British settlers still preferred tea.) At that time, there were separate shops that sold meat (butchers), produce (green grocers), and dry products including canned goods. So customers shopped from store to store on a daily basis necessary because this was before the electric or gas refrigerator. Eventually, these shops merged into a full service grocery. But grocers still picked out the requested items from shopper’s lists, something my store continued to do for a few customers in 1950. The first self-service supermarket might have been a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis about 1916.

My Grand Union was a small store with just two main aisles. But it still offered a variety of foodstuffs including produce, meats, and dry goods. Besides the manager, its payroll included a couple of matron cashiers (who wrapped sanitary napkins in plain brown paper when not ringing up the cash register.) There were usually a couple of part time high school boys like me. We worked after school, on Saturdays, including Saturday night when the neighboring farm families came to town to shop, hear the village band play and compare notes on milk prices. We were needed on delivery day when tractor trailers pulled into the back alley and unloaded boxes down a chute into the back door. Some of the contents went immediately to replenish depleted shelves while others were stored in the basement. I dawdled down there sometimes so I could sneak a warm soft drink and cookies or crackers from a damaged box.

I was schooled in the grocery business: how to fill customer’s orders, how to arrange produce, how to bring dairy products forward so old ones sold first. Another “trick” was to repackage cold cuts so the freshest slice was on the outside. Price changes had to be made weekly as directed from the regional headquarters. That meant erasing inked numbers with a damp cloth or steel wool and stamping on the new price. Most of all I learned to be polite to customers, applying courtesy I had learned at home. I found merchandise they wanted, carried bags to cars parked along the street or in the back alley. I was told that not all soft rotting produce was to be discarded but to be saved at a reduced price for elderly patrons such as my relative whose teeth couldn’t manage firmer pieces.

One of the proudest moments of my young life was when the manager took an unusual few days off, leaving me in charge. I had the key to open and close the store and knew the location of where petty cash was hidden over night – behind the Libby’s peas maybe. Referring to this assignment, the manager wrote in a letter of support for a college scholarship: “I delegated authority to him because I knew that he was honest, trustworthy and capable to take responsibility … ”

I should have felt guilty about that purloined soda and cookies, that he must have known about).

I hoped that the high school student I saw pushing grocery carts received similar training and experience. There is much to be learned from grocery store employment.

Vol. 40 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2013

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