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I grew up in Belleville, New Jersey (1960 population 35,005), in a house on Washington Avenue, the main street of town. Directly across the street was a movie theater, a Shell gas station, and a drugstore. The featured image is the drugstore, and you can see a little bit of the Shell sign on the lefthand edge. The movie theater would be to the left of the Shell station. I was very excited to find this picture on facebook in a group I just discovered called “You know you’re from Belleville, NJ.” You might be surprised that I lived in such a mixed-use neighborhood, but it still felt very residential. And since my father’s medical office was attached to the house, I guess we couldn’t have been in a purely residential neighborhood.

We knew the owner of the gas station, and he would often do work on our cars for free, because my father was his doctor. Purchases of gas always came with S&H green stamps, and sometimes other cool giveaways, like drinking glasses with football logos on them. The gasoline was from Shell, but the station didn’t feel corporate, it felt personal. I always knew that if we had a car problem, Pat at the gas station would take care of it. The drugstore belonged to a neighbor who greeted us by name when we walked in. He had a freezer near the door with ice cream cones in it. I always got a chocolate cone when we went there. I don’t remember Daniel Del Tufo and his real estate/insurance office which is next to the drugstore in the picture, but that wouldn’t have had any interest to me as a kid. There was a boy named Nicky Del Tufo in my class in elementary school, who must have been related to Daniel.

Three doors down from us on our side of the street was the Acme, where we got all our groceries. We walked there, of course, it was so close. My mother went there almost every day to buy the fixings for that night’s dinner. Sometimes, if she just needed one or two items, she would send one of us kids, since it didn’t involve crossing the street. Generally we went with her. There was a carousel of paperback books near the cash register, and we could sit on the floor and read the books while she did the shopping (sort of like the magazines they have in the checkout lines now). I googled Acme for this story, and it does still exist, it’s a chain with stores in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, and since 1999 has been owned by Albertsons. Google maps shows me that the Acme building with its small parking lot is still there on my old block, but it is a Walgreen’s now instead of an Acme.

In the opposite direction from the Acme, but still on Washington Avenue, were a bakery and a delicatessen that we liked to go to on Sunday mornings, getting fresh bagels at the bakery and lox at the delicatessen. We would generally also get a chocolate cake or cheesecake or some other treat at the bakery as well. I have described going to those stores with my grandfather in my story about my grandparents, who lived with us. There was also a kosher butcher within walking distance on a different street. We didn’t keep kosher, but my grandmother liked to go there for chicken. The chickens were still alive, you picked out the one you wanted and the butcher killed it for you. I only went with her once, and then refused to go ever again. I’m surprised it didn’t turn me into a vegetarian.

Several blocks down Washington Avenue past the Acme was the central business district. This consisted of about three blocks bustling with small stores and one biggish Woolworth’s. I mainly remember going into Woolworth’s to look at their toys and costume jewelry and other assorted knickknacks. We referred to it as “the five and ten cent store.” I don’t know if they still had items for five and ten cents by the late ’50s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Another store we went to was a small shoe store called Jack and Jill that sold children’s shoes. At the far end of the store there were two really high padded seats for children to sit on while they got their feet measured by the salesman. I now realize the purpose of these seats was so that he could do the measuring without bending over, but for me it was like sitting on a throne, and I loved to go there and sit in those seats. We always had to buy “sensible” shoes that gave us good arch support, nothing trendy like loafers, and certainly not sneakers – I don’t think Jack and Jill even sold sneakers.

For clothing we always went to department stores in Newark. There were local clothing stores in Belleville, but my mother did not consider their merchandise to be of good enough quality. We generally went to Hahne’s or Bamberger’s (found only in New Jersey), or Orbach’s (locations in New York, New Jersey, and, oddly enough,  Los Angeles). For special occasions, we got to shop at Lord and Taylor or Bloomingdale’s. All of those stores are chains of varying sizes.

Restaurants were all local. I don’t even think there was such a thing as chain restaurants back then, and certainly no fast food. There were several different diners that we went to, with names like the Woodside Diner and the Arlington Diner, as well as Don’s 21, the Mafia joint that I wrote about in Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. The first McDonald’s opened in Belleville in 1960 or ’61, and we tried it once out of curiosity, but never went back. For ice cream, we sometimes got Dairy Queen or Carvel, but generally preferred a local place called Holsten’s that made their own ice cream.

Nowadays when I’m so conscious of almost everything being a chain, I make a concerted effort to patronize local businesses, which sometimes leads to comical results. When we first took Molly to college in Whittier, we were looking for a place to have breakfast. We didn’t want to go to Starbucks, but we saw another place on the next block that we thought was a local business. It was called Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which sounded charming. We went in and ordered at the counter. It was only after we got our food that we discovered that it was also a chain. Because they don’t have any locations in the Sacramento area, we had never heard of them, but it turned out that they have more than a thousand stores nationwide (as compared to 30,000 worldwide for Starbucks), so not exactly the charming local business we thought we were patronizing.

In my current life in Sacramento, I always avoid restaurants that are chains. That is easy to do, because we have a vast and varied selection of eateries here in the Farm to Fork capital. We have one local drugstore (pictured) that tries to compete with Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid, CVS, and the drug departments of Target and Walmart. I am actually amazed that they are able to stay in business. We have one local bookstore for new books, and several for used books. I hardly ever buy books at all, because I can get everything I want to read at the library.

I have to admit that I do a lot of shopping online. Sometimes stores like Target or Kohl’s don’t have the product I need in the store, but I can order it from their website. Sometimes Amazon is the only place I can find what I am looking for, but at least they give a percentage of my purchases back to Retrospect, which I appreciate. I am sad that I am not able to do a better job of supporting local merchants, but they don’t have the inventory. And the reason they don’t have the inventory is because of the competition with online stores. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that seems pretty hard to break. I miss the days of charming little stores owned by people you knew, who gave you good service and provided what you wanted. But I don’t think those days are likely to come back. And it sure is nice to get packages delivered to me right at my door!

 

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your photo is a remarkable jumping off point to tell the story of your neighborhood and, in many ways, the details of daily life. I think it was true for many of us, for there weren’t as many big chains in our towns (even Detroit). We bought local, knew the neighborhood drug store and gas station. I still know the owner of my gas station (not self-serve) in Newton and he will do small repairs and buy ads in my concert programs. He gives me good service. Even as recently as 1985, when David was born, there was a really good drug store in Boston (with a soda fountain). David had colic and drove both of us crazy, he was in gastric distress. Our pediatrician prescribed something to soothe the cramps and the drug store DELIVERED! I was so grateful. Of course, that place is long-gone, as are most of the wonderful, unique stores in the Back Bay, replaced by high-end designers or chains of restaurants. Thanks for sharing your memories, Suzy.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Betsy. I love that you had a drugstore that delivered as recently as 1985. The only way to get that now would be if drugstores could sign up for a service like Postmates – which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea!

  2. Suzy I marvel at your recall of detail: you give a great sense of both time and place. But your “enumeration” of establishments prompted me to wonder: there is a trick that works for some people who have difficulty falling asleep. One tries to remember, in succession, who lived in the succession of houses neighboring one’s childhood home. Variations abound (name your elementary school teachers in succession, etc.) So were you nodding off as you wrote this story?

    • Suzy says:

      No, I wasn’t nodding off, but thanks for asking. 🙂 I have a very vivid memory of the 5 department stores I named, although I had to google the first 3 to find out if they were just NJ stores or more widespread. As to the rest of it, I did send a draft of my story to both of my sisters, asking them to add their memories. They reminded me of Jack and Jill, and the carousel of paperbacks at the Acme, as well as mentioning other stores that I didn’t remember so I didn’t include them.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Just a terrific trip down Memory Lane, Suzy — thanks for taking us along. And what an amazing recall of all these places. (And yes; checking with one’s siblings is perfectly appropriate “research;’ I will sometimes check with my brother unless I’m worried that something I really want to write about is mis-remembered and he will point it out to me.) I actually knew about all these New Jersey department stores you mentioned, not because there were any in Connecticut, but because they all advertised in the NY Times and/or the NY TV and radio stations that dominated the Tri-State area.

    And your continued support of local stores is admirable, as well as difficult. I had my own “Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf” experience — in New Jersey, even! — when I went to my first Panera on Princeton’s main drag, Nassau Avenue, with my younger daughter when she was going to school there around 2004. I first thought it was a really cool local spot, but figured that one out in a hurry. Plus, I share your ambivalence about on-line shopping. I sure do like getting “presents” in the mail.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Glad to hear about your Panera incident. We have Panera Bread here too, and I agree that it has the appearance of a cool, local spot. At the one in downtown Sacramento, where parking is difficult, they ring a bell when they see the “meter maid” coming and everyone rushes out to feed their meters or move their cars.

  4. Marian says:

    Here we go with similarities, Suzy. What did you end up getting with all those green stamps? We went to Shop Rite, but I do remember Acme as well, and the kosher butcher we used in West Orange. My grandmother occasionally took me to the chicken market (didn’t like going), but that was in the Bronx. There is a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf about 10 minutes away from my house, and, like you, I was initially thrilled because I thought it was an independent business. Amazing timing, today’s San Jose Mercury News had an article about the major decrease in small, independent retail businesses over the last decade. It’s disappointing that our children and grandchildren won’t have the experiences we did.

    • Suzy says:

      I remember pasting all those stamps into booklets better than I remember what we redeemed them for. I do seem to recall using stamps for a GE toaster-oven to replace our old toaster. That was pretty exciting! Amazing timing, indeed, on the Mercury News article – they must have been looking at our site for ideas! Interesting that they say the decrease has been only in the last decade, it seems longer to me.

  5. Marian says:

    I remember my mother getting something like drinking glasses (for juice) from the green stamps. Cool about the toaster-oven. The Merc article didn’t imply that the small shop decline happened only in the last decade, but that the decrease really sped up during and after the Great Recession, and now with commercial rents sky high here, it’s only compounded the problem. How sad!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    OMG Suzy, so many memories. S&H green stamps. Car mechanics who knew your name… and your car. Five and Ten stores. Did your children’s shoe store have an x-ray machine to see how much your feet had grown? Mine did. Super safe practice. And only brown leather sensible shoes or two-tone oxford please. I agree that the in-person service of our youth has been replaced by the very fast service of online retail. I’m guilty of enjoying the convenience but also nostalgic for many of the things mentioned in your story.

  7. Weren’t they called “fluoroscopes”? The better to dissuade us from any thought of over exposure?

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    Yes, that was the name. I can’t believe I was exposed to radiation every time I needed new shoes!

  9. Our town, USA. There were still common denominators in those days that did not involve corporations but what the community needed. And those town squares. In colonial states, the stores you describe were built around the commons, public land in the center of town for pasturing livestock, general meetings, and celebrations. You described the commonality of the commons so warmly, right down to the chocolate cones and the green stamps! I have no recollection of what you could re-collect with green stamps (S&H). Much love in this piece. Thanks!

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