Before she could reach the register, my mother went to work in her father’s grocery store. She was five when she became a clerk in the small shop at 431 Girard Avenue, in North Philadelphia. At the time—the late 1930s—my grandfather had been managing an A&P franchise there for some years. The store sold mostly nonperishable foods, household paper and cleaning supplies, plus fresh bakery and dairy products. As a pint-sized clerk, Rosie fetched items from shelves that ran the length of the store. She brought them to the register, where someone taller rang them up. No self-service, no shopping carts, no coupons.
A year or so after she started helping, my grandfather bought the building and became an independent grocer, affiliated with Unity-Frankford, a co-op that offered wholesale prices to local shops that bore its name. Founded in 1888, Frankford Grocery Company was the wholesaler; its warehouse was on Unity Street in the city’s Frankford neighborhood. Over time, there were more than 2,000 Unity-Frankford stores in the Philadelphia area. A 2008 article in the Frankford-Gazette generated a wave of nostalgia about these neighborhood grocers through online comments from people who had worked in one, shopped in one, lived upstairs from one—like my mother’s family; or who—like me—were a generation removed from the experience, but nevertheless felt a deep attachment to a business that was an important part of our family history; and a desire to document what is still remembered from that slice of a city’s history.
Two online comments referenced relatives from Northern Ireland who had owned Unity-Frankford shops. My grandfather, Michael Henry, had worked at a food co-op in Magherafelt in County Derry, Northern Ireland. When he came to Philadelphia in his early 20s, he sought the same kind of work. His store at 5th & Girard (not quite on the corner, but the address was always “rounded up”), served a neighborhood full of immigrants. The city was teeming with new arrivals, including many from Ireland. My grandmother, Mary Donnelly, had arrived in Philadelphia from Draperstown, County Derry, and found work as a housekeeper for a well-to-do family. The two met in their adopted city, where Irish immigrants often socialized with people from their home county. Mom recalls the annual Unity-Frankford banquet as her parents’ one big night out each year.
When my grandfather first managed the store, his young family lived a few miles north in the Olney section of the city. Once he bought the building, he expanded the store and renovated the upstairs apartments. The Henrys moved in just in time for Mom to start second grade at Saint Peter the Apostle School, right across the street. In my mind, the grocery store and Saint Peter’s are inseparable, and “5th & Girard” is shorthand for both, because the family’s life largely revolved around those two institutions. But mostly it was the store they talked about later, because for my mother’s family, their world was that grocery store, and the modest building where they lived and worked together.
Most of the family’s living space was on the second floor, but the dining room and kitchen were downstairs, behind the storeroom. They rented out the third-floor apartment. I have a photo of my grandfather proudly standing in front of his store with a window display of something called “Sparkle.” I’d guessed it was a cleaning product, but Mom explains it was powdered gelatin. A handmade sign advertises four boxes of Sparkle for 17 cents. My grandfather wears his crisp white butcher’s jacket over a shirt and tie; a spotless white apron falls below his knees.
After he settled in Philadelphia, my grandfather took classes to learn how to butcher meat, so he always planned to add a butcher counter. Eventually he did so, with a workroom behind the shop, and a walk-in refrigerator. With that expansion, the family lost its dining room, but added an eat-in kitchen and an outdoor “flat” above the back of the store. When the meat and deli counter opened, my grandfather hired one butcher, and later a second. He always had at least one clerk, sometimes two. He hired order-boys to make deliveries by bicycle to customers who phoned in orders. Mom remembers Fridays as being busy for everyone, but especially the butchers. Because these men always worked late on Fridays, my grandmother fed them dinner before they left.
Over time, little Rosie took on other tasks. When she was about nine, she shaved the tippity-top off her little finger working a lunchmeat slicer. As soon as she could reach the register, she rang up orders. She had a knack for this task, and she was so quick customers sometimes doubted her accuracy. She remembers one woman who asked for an order to be re-tallied, because she was sure the young clerk was cheating her. Mom’s numbers added up perfectly. On another day, that same customer was herself caught cheating: As her order was being tallied, a large bundle of meats came undone and a pilfered pound of butter tumbled out. She mumbled something about deserving it, because of her other purchases, but from that day she was banished from the store.
Today, grocery stores know more than we wish they did about our lives, our preferences, our purchasing patterns, even our bank accounts. But before scanners, credit and debit cards, and data analysis were invented, grocers like my grandfather knew even more about their customers. They knew them by name and, as neighbors, they knew a great deal about their personal lives. Mom remembers many customers who purchased groceries “on the book”—meaning my grandfather extended them credit. Sometimes he was paid back in full, sometimes in part, sometimes not at all. During World War II, when people needed ration stamps for meat, sugar, and other items, he quietly moved stamps around among his customers, because he knew who had enough and who still needed more. At a St. Peter’s reunion Mom attended long after my grandfather died, someone made an impromptu speech about how much his kindnesses had mattered and how many families he had helped. She remembers one customer who after the war brought gifts for my grandparents—well-made furniture, linens, and lamps—to thank them for feeding her family during those lean years.
Mom recalls passing the time during World War II air raid drills at the dining room table, blackout curtains pulled tight across the windows, working by the dimmest lamplight possible with her parents to count and organize the ration stamps they’d collected. These had to be turned in before my grandfather—also the neighborhood air raid warden—could order more rationed supplies.
Like the ration coupons, every aspect of the business was managed manually. My grandfather tracked what had been sold from one day to the next by walking around with a clipboard, counting what was on the shelves. The store was open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed only on Sundays and major holidays. Six nights a week he tallied what had been sold, listed what had to be restocked, and left a note in the window so the bread man knew what to leave. On Thursday nights, he filled out his weekly Unity-Frankford order then dropped it in the mail. The milkman made overnight deliveries to a locked box. When the weekly Unity-Frankford delivery arrived, it was an all-hands-on-deck operation. The one other all-hands-on-deck activity—for the family and other staff—happened every New Year’s Eve, when a manual inventory was done for year-end accounting. This could just as accurately have been done on New Year’s Day, when the store was closed, but because my grandfather was a stickler for rules, he insisted on completing the task before midnight.
As the business grew, the store was again reconfigured—with self-service shelves, a few shopping carts, a new check-out counter, and a produce section. One of the biggest changes happened when they added a freezer case, and for the first time the store sold items like ice cream and frozen vegetables.
My mother’s younger sister, Mary Ann also helped in the store. Their little brother, Michael would eventually become an order-boy. But before Uncle Mickey had that job, in the mid-1940s my grandfather hired a 7th grader from St. Peter’s. That young man, John Avender, had emigrated with his parents from Romania when he was only ten. He was still learning English and spoke with a thick German accent. Eventually, he married Mary Ann.
Every summer, my grandmother and her three children spent two weeks at the Jersey shore, with my grandfather there just on weekends, so he never had to leave the store for more than one day. Mom only remembers one employee—Stevie Auerbach, who began as an order boy—who was trusted to manage the store on the rare days my grandfather wasn’t there.
When Mom was in high school and started dating an Irish-American lad named Bernie, he started hanging around the store, sometimes helping my uncles-to-be with deliveries. Mom kept working there on Saturdays even after she finished high school and started a full-time job downtown; and even after she started working her way part-time through Peirce College; and right up until she and Bernie were married at St. Peter’s, on Thanksgiving Day, 1956. (Conveniently, the store was closed for the holiday.)
In the 17 or so years my mother worked in her father’s grocery store, she was never paid a penny—except in room and board, and pretty much anything else she needed—like clothes, roller skates, and trolley fares. Like her father, mother, sister, and brother, she was allowed to take spending money from the register, as long as she carefully documented each withdrawal.
I have only two memories of being at 431 Girard Avenue, although I know as a baby and toddler I was there often. As the first grandchild, I would have been treated as royalty by my grandparents, my aunt, uncles, and the staff and customers. I have a photograph of my toddler self in a big white sun bonnet on the flat—standing beside my doting grandmother and a carriage that held my baby sister Angie. At the time of that photograph, my grandmother had already been diagnosed with cancer, and she died soon after. Once she was gone, my grandfather and my Uncle Mickey moved to the suburbs with us. My grandfather stopped being a full-time grocer, although he did work again as a butcher before he retired.
My grandfather held onto the property at 431 Girard Avenue for some years, leasing it out to a series of tenants. Once, when I was maybe seven or eight, I went with him to collect the rent. I can only imagine how bittersweet it must have been to return to that building, where so much of his family’s life had played out. I remember he seemed proud to show me his old store.
On my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary in 2016, I happened to be in North Philadelphia. I had arrived from my downtown office on the El, and as I walked back to the train, I saw the spire of St. Peter’s, now the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. So, I took a little detour up Girard, past a shiny new Acme supermarket, until I stood in front of 431, a tired-looking building with a solid metal gate across its facade. There were no signs to suggest what was happening inside. But I knew I was in a place that held a great deal of history—not just for me and my family, but for all those other people who had passed in and out of that neighborhood grocery store from the early 1930s until the early 1960s.
Eileen Cunniffe writes nonfiction that explores identity and experience, most often through the lenses of travel, family, and work. Her writing has appeared in four anthologies and many literary journals. Her first book, Mischief & Metaphors: Essaying a Life, is forthcoming with Shanti Arts Publishing.