all of the selves we Have ever been
During my youth,
American suburbs were growing and expanding.
By the time I was a teenager, my family lived in such a development just outside of Pittsburgh. Our suburb was home to the first enclosed mall
in the state of Pennsylvania. The Northway Mall opened in 1962, but I did not get familiar with it until the 1970s when I was in high school.
The mall was my alternate universe. Once inside, there were no reminders of my life on another planet.
Sometimes on a Saturday morning, my mom or dad would drop me off at the mall where I would meet a friend. I usually entered the mall through Woolworth’s, the original five-and-dime store. Woolworth’s had a counter that sold frozen Cokes and giant, soft, salty, pretzels. I would come back later and call that fare my lunch.
Once I caught up with my friend, Spencer Gifts was our first stop. Spencer’s never disappointed, and we spent a significant percentage of our mall-time there. Spencer’s Gifts sold novelty items and gag gifts among other things. As teens, we were pre-occupied with the outrageous novelty items. We found them hilarious. While lava floated and morphed in the lamps all around us, and psychedelic posters glowed on the walls, we howled with laughter over the fake vomit, whoopee cushions, and the crazy expressions printed on t-shirts. Spencer’s definitely had the What?! Factor. The merchandise was generally inexpensive and nothing we needed, so we rarely made a purchase, though I still regret not buying the t-shirt that said, “Dear Auntie Em, Hate you. Hate Kansas. Taking the dog. Dorothy.” I don’t know why that shirt tickled my funny bone back then, but it sure did—enough to remember it to this day. Hanging out in Spencer’s was so much fun that the store could have charged admission, and we would have paid.
Next on our agenda was the National Record Mart. If we did buy something on a mall-Saturday, it was most likely a record album. There were hundreds of albums to flip through. We studied the jackets and the song lists comparing notes about our favorites and judging whether or not there were enough good songs on the album to merit a purchase. We could pick up a 45 RPM if we decided the album wasn’t worth it.
Waldenbooks was nearby and our next stop. It was a tiny shop compared to the giant Borders and Barnes & Noble stores that came much later, but it was books. Never a waste of time! It was an opportunity to find something good to read like Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, William Blatty’s The Exorcist, or Richard Bach’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull. It was also an opportunity to set eyes on the controversial adult book titles of the times: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, The Sensuous Woman, The Joy of Sex, and The Total Woman. Of course, we were discreet, taking these books to another section and remaining on the lookout for any parents who might recognize us. I learned then that living a lie can be exhausting. While I didn’t learn much about sex, I did learn to walk the straight and narrow.
We wandered the rest of the mall making shorter stops in the big department stores like Joseph Hornes. Those were usually too pricey for teenagers. We might try on clothes at Marianne’s or shoes at Bakers, but we made few additional purchases.
The most exciting, life-transforming mall event happened when a company advertised in the newspaper that it would be at the mall to do ear piercings. Pierced ears were a privilege reserved for teenage girls back in that day. The company would come into the mall, set up a kiosk, and pierce ears. It took about two seconds and cost $7.95. Good bye clip-ons! After a couple of days, the company would close up shop and return again in four weeks. After our ears were pierced, we received a post card in the mail asking us to come back and have our piercings checked. Each customer received a pair of tiny gold ball studs with instructions to turn the post, and clean the earlobes with alcohol until healing was complete. We returned when the postcard advised us to. Ever after that, mall shopping involved every store that sold earrings.
For the first generation to grow up in the suburbs, malls were a big deal. Teenagers could safely have some freedom and develop adult consumer skills. The opportunity motivated us to take on small jobs and to save our earnings for the things we wanted. Those shopping-Saturdays allowed us to see items that others talked about so that we could be “cool” too. The mall was a place where teens shared experiences and cemented friendships. It was a great way to pass a quiet Saturday.
The suburbs continued to grow. And grow. The traffic increased and the malls became crowded. Merchandise became more expensive, and the next generations of teenagers had packed schedules that rarely left them with a leisurely Saturday. Increasingly, their world became the internet and shopping was done on-line.
In the years since I first slurped frozen Cokes at Woolworth’s and giggled with girl friends at Spencer’s Gifts, the Northway Mall has gone through several re-inventions, and so have I. But I have stayed true to my brick-and-mortar stores. My earlobes remain pierced. Inside my jewelry box are inexpensive but precious earrings purchased on one of those quiet Saturdays long ago. I continue to giggle with a dear high school friend who wandered those wide corridors with me. I still love books and old record albums. And if I find that t-shirt with the note to Auntie Em, I’m buyin’ it!
Every teen needs an alternate universe, a place that is her own, an out-in-the open space where she can be both cool and safe. We didn’t spend much money at the Northway Mall, certainly not enough to keep it in business. Thankfully, memories didn’t cost much. And they were built to last.
There is a coin shortage.
And a pandemic.
Together these two forces may bring about the end of dollars and cents. Hello, micro-chips and plastic; goodbye, lucky pennies.
This saddens me. Pennies, nickels, and dimes were the currency of my childhood. I still feel on top of the world when I find a shiny copper penny in the convenience store parking lot or a dingy silver dime in the grass along the bike path.
A few coins won’t buy much in the world today, but when I was a child, a single penny was admission to the most magical place on earth. I am not talking about Disneyland; I am speaking of Apple Annie’s, the local penny candy store.
I don’t know what the shop’s real name was. I don’t know how the proprietress came to be known as Apple Annie. Perhaps, the children in my family gave her that name. She was married to Ted, the co-owner of the store. However, Ted was never there as he was busy doing janitor-things at the Catholic school and church across the street. I never saw the living quarters, but I am told that Apple Annie and Ted lived in the back of the store with their son and daughter.
I don’t know what else Apple Annie and Ted sold in that store. I never looked left. Arriving at the store filled with anticipation, I peeked through the glass window and opened the door. A small, tarnished brass bell jingled above me when I entered and summoned Apple Annie to the front. At the right of the shop there was the large wooden and glass case displaying a wide assortment of candy. I would swear that side of the store glowed with a halo of heaven’s light. The display case may have rested upon a fluffy white cloud. I can’t be sure so engrossed was I in making my selections.
The display seemed grand inside the weary store with its worn and creaking wooden floors. Today, one might expect to find fancy French pastries in such a magnificent case. Of course, I wasn’t looking for pastries; I was studying the candy necklaces, the flying saucers filled with tiny candy beads, the wax bottles and wax sticks. There were licorice strings, Pixy Stix, and black taffy. Favorites included the striped rainbow coconut that we called “bacon,” and watermelon slices that looked like teeny tiny wedges of watermelon, little black seeds included. The bacon and the watermelon sparkled with crystals of sugar. There were ruby red wax lips, marshmallow ice cream cones, and Kits in banana, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors.
An expensive choice might be a role of Necco wafers, but that could go a long way. Necco wafers were not just food, they were also props. We used them as play food, play money, and for thousands of re-enactments of Holy Communion. Among the best bargains were the pastel blue, pink, and yellow candy buttons on a long white ribbon of paper. We had to pick the small, crunchy dots off with our fingernails or tear them off with our bottom teeth spitting out the excess paper. The best bargains were the two-for-a-penny candies such as Atomic Fireballs and root beer barrels. The two-for-a-penny items were a great buy on a tight budget and also made it easier when aunts and uncles gave you coins and marching orders to share with your siblings or cousins.
After children made their selections, Apple Annie placed the items into a miniature brown paper bag, a child-sized version of the adult grocery bag. Whoever came up with that bag was a genius as far as I was concerned. The bag was a perfect fit for a child’s hand. It was also proof that penny candy existed for children only. An adult would look foolish carrying such a tiny bag. Unlike the purchases of beer or cigarettes, adults-only products, no proof of identification was necessary for these child-only items. Your physical stature and missing teeth were proof enough for Annie.
Before Amazon took over everything, before Google began to spy on our buying habits and catalog our preferences, Annie controlled the kingdom. No one but Annie ever got behind the display case. There were no cameras or digital facial recognition systems. Annie knew all of us. And she knew our parents too. And we knew she knew. She didn’t need an alarm system or a gun. She could pick up the phone. But Annie never needed to do so. She was kind and patient. Annie never rushed the selection process. She came to know our preferences, helped us make decisions, and magically, the case never ran empty.
If any of the town’s children had gone missing, Annie could have created an age-enhanced image from her mind’s eye. She would know our fingerprints and our nose prints from the many times she wiped them from the glass. Apple Annie probably could have made an accurate guess of our IQs from the way we went about our business. It is likely Annie could have accurately predicted which among us were headed for success and which were headed for the penitentiary. She saw the ones who learned to get the most for their money, the ones who shared, and the ones who would not. Annie knew the patient children from the impulsive ones. She knew which children spent everything they had and which kept some money back for later.
A little money in your pocket is a wonderful thing whether you are six or sixty. Some money of our own helps us to feel confident, hopeful, capable, and fortunate. It buys us choices and gives us a future. Most importantly, money gives us the capacity to be generous and to enter into the world of magic.
If coins and cash disappear, how will I acknowledge the street musicians? The homeless veterans? How will I tip the person who does the unexpected good deed? What will I tuck into birthday cards? Toss into a wishing well? What will I leave beneath the pillow of a sleeping child with a toothless grin?
And when the shiny pennies disappear, where will all the luck go?
I don’t want to risk it. I say, keep the change.
Retail shops re-opened in Ohio yesterday.
I am grateful to have these brick and mortar stores in my neighborhood. I hope they can stand up to both Amazon and the coronavirus. These shops are vital to the life of a community.
My grandparents owned and operated a small grocery store in Adena, Ohio. It had a legal name. I am not one hundred percent sure what that name was. To all of us in the family, it was known simply as “the store.”
That small shop became the centerpiece of my childhood. A short path linked the side-door of the store to the kitchen door of my grandmother’s home, the hub of her household. Hearing the store’s screen door slam indicated that a relative or neighbor was on their way for a visit. That sound was sure to grab your attention. Not many people visited the house. There wasn’t much need when so much visiting went on inside the store.
It was at the store that I came to know the members of my community. It is where I heard their many languages and became familiar with their lovely immigrant accents. I came to know some of their stories and overheard many of their problems—a sick child, a drinking husband, unemployment, and “CA,” known to us now as cancer. The shoppers sought out the ingredients for their special recipes, a rich menu of native foods. There was no need for formalized “diversity training.” It happened naturally at the store.
My Aunt Phoebe, the oldest of my grandparents’ children, ran the grocery business throughout my youth. She had a gift for languages and was skilled at rapidly switching tongues. Even though I knew these people came from many different countries, because of Phoebe’s skill, I thought there were only two universal languages, English and Polish. Never mind the fact that my grandparents came from Lebanon, and I heard my grandmother speak Arabic in our home.
For the most part, in this small village, people came to the store on foot. It was a time when many women did not drive and families had few cars. The large majority of shoppers were women. Though post-war advertisers targeted women with the goal of turning them into buying machines, even from my child’s eye-view, I could see why women loved to shop. It got them out of the house and into communion with others. It was a break from the daily grind. They got some exercise and some time to themselves on the walk to and from the store. They were reminded that they were not alone. These women spent a few dollars and shed a few worries. The pantry was restocked. They left the store with some fresh hope in a brown paper bag.
The women all seemed so old to me in their long skirts and comfortable shoes. They were unembarrassed by the graying of their hair that they sometimes covered with babushkas--not out of vanity but because of weather or custom. They smelled of garlic and spices. They did not visit salons for manicures. Their nails were shaped and worn from work and colored from the earth’s soil, coal dust, or simmering beets. I was taught that all of these were signs of women worthy of my respect.
It was at the store where I learned to work, bagging groceries, dusting and stocking shelves. I learned how to read the wholesale catalog to determine the suggested retail prices. We used an ink stamper to price each individual item. There were no computer codes or scanners. My fingertips became black from the ink as I turned the tiny dials to change the prices.
I learned about commerce as the delivery drivers arrived with trays of Wonder bread, cartons of canned goods, and Sugardale meats. There was a walk-in refrigerator where sides of beef hung from a hook and my aunts or the butcher stepped inside to cut the meat fresh and exactly as ordered. I realized where meat came from and saw how hamburger was made. I witnessed the dangers of knives and grinders even in the skilled hands of adults. The meat was weighed on a white metal scale, wrapped in butcher paper and tied with string pulled from a large bolt that hung from the ceiling. There were no foam trays or pre-packaged products.
Unlike the produce departments of today, our produce section was small. While the shoppers came from all over the world, the products did not. The fruits and vegetables were locally grown or trucked in from a nearby wholesaler, but it was all limited and seasonal.
Much more like today, there was a small rack near the checkout that contained candy and chewing gum. My favorite candy was Mallo Cups, a milk chocolate candy with a whipped, creamy, coconut-flavored filling. I also loved the sour orange gum. Between smokes in the back room, my Aunt Phoebe chewed on the Black Jack, the licorice-flavored gum that she preferred. Sometimes I liked to join her in the back room and chomp my sour orange gum while Phoebe smoked a cigarette and threw some chunks of coal into the furnace.
There was a single checkout lane and cash register, a handful of grocery carts. I learned the check-out procedures and how to ring up a sale. We punched each digit into the round black cash register keys and learned how to count back change. Before credit and debit cards, customers had accounts. There was a little book for each customer. We would keep track of the dates of purchase, the amount and the growing total or payments. There were no collection services. My grandmother and aunts were well-known for looking away when someone could not afford to pay.
I had the opportunity to learn where and how people lived as I helped to carry or deliver groceries to their homes. Sometimes we would be sent on secret missions to deliver anonymous bags of groceries to the front porches of neighbors in need.
Though the stored closed early in the evening, about dinner time, it was 24-hour service for the family. If we needed something, we ran over to the store to get it. I remember the strange feeling of entering the dark, quiet store during off hours – it was like visiting a corpse compared to the light and liveliness of business hours.
Later, after we moved to our new home in Pittsburgh, we would visit my grandmother’s house, usually on Sundays when the store was officially closed, but there was always a trip to the store as our send off. Our family was sent over to the store stock up on groceries which we carted back to the suburbs in our crowded station wagon.
Even as a young adult, I returned to my grandmother’s house and to the store as often as I could. The store was small by today’s standards. Many gas station convenience stores have similar square footage. Had we been forced to “social distance,” we might have been able to have four of five shoppers in the store at one time. It was small, but the store was the world to me. I could always find someone I loved and someone who loved me. It was in the store that I joined in the work of my family and the life of my community. I could hang out or help out. No Ivy League education could have been finer.
Things are not always what they seem. Our family store was humble in appearance, but inside my uneducated, but gifted Aunt Phoebe was a kind, compassionate, self-taught, multilingual philanthropist to her community. She proved to be a savvy businesswoman and investor studying the stock market reports each evening in the daily newspaper. When Aunt Phoebe died, she left a legacy of generosity to her community and a small fortune to be shared by her many siblings.
Support your local brick and mortar stores. Shop safely. Wear a mask. Keep the heart of your community beating.