That Old Grocery Store on Nine Mile Road
Marlyn Snyder Allgood

When I was a kid, my parents owned a grocery store. Cottage Grocery, located on the corner of Nine Mile and Carl Street, in Macomb County, Michigan. Looking through some old boxes the other day, I found a picture of the inside of my mother and daddy’s store. There stood my sweet mother looking at me from behind the meat counter, and my big sister Betty at the cash register. Hair pinned tightly to their heads and covered with a hairnet. I remember those hairnets of my mother’s, each folded perfectly in its new paper envelope nest when she brought them home from the Neisners Store on Gratiot Avenue. A pretty woman’s picture printed on the front of the envelope, with the color and type also listed. There were heavy brown ones that tied in the back; those she used when she made the ground meat. Then there were the delicate silky webs she wore for everyday that somehow never tangled as she deftly slipped them over her head. My sister Betty worked in the store with my mother after her high school graduation and even before, but being 8 years old and 10 years younger than my sister, my only real chore was drying the supper dishes, which I hated, preferring the more grown up dish washing chore. However, I never saw the point of washing the backs of the dishes, so I was not allowed that pleasure. It was one of Betty’s chores to hand dip the hard as rocks ice cream from the store ice cream freezer, and she hated that. Hand dipped ice cream by quarts or cones was a specialty of the store, and most who ordered it stood there watching her to make sure their ice cream order had no air pockets in the box and generous dips in the cones.

The Depression years were ending, but cookies were money to my parents, every cookie counted, you could say. Long cardboard boxes held those delicious treats. There they were, every day, peering out at me, begging to be in my hand and enjoyed. I just knew it. A six-sectioned rack held the long cardboard boxes, each about twelve inches square, and three feet long, with NABISCO emblazoned in bold blue letters on the long sides, with the 12-inch end opened. Usually my daddy cut the end off of the box with his pocketknife, I think, and then a metal and glass door with an easy to open latch that faced the front was put in place. There they were, tempting, looking even more delicious through the glass. The cookies inside were nestled in nice little rows, held in place by a paper apparatus, keeping each cookie separated from its neighboring cookie so little breaking or crumbing occurred. As the cookies were sold and the boxes emptied, this little door went from the empty box to a new full box of cookies. Customers could buy only one cookie, or a dozen or dozens; it was their choice, but if you only had enough money for one cookie, it was yours. Mother said they were “sold in bulk”. I don’t know how long it has been since cookies have not been sold that way. It was many, many years later before you could buy one cookie at a time anywhere other than a bakery. But, everyone and their dog that bought a cookie stuck their hands in there to pick out the ones they wanted. Mother would give them a little brown paper bag, and they would have to choose one kind for that bag, or ask for another one, since the cookie prices varied. There were no plastic gloves or cookie police around.

A cookie junky to this very day, I dreamed of sneaking one of those cookies...There were the big spicy Windmill Cookies, my next to best favorite, in one box, then in the others, Fig Newtons, Coconut Vanilla’s, Chocolate Sandwich Cookies with white frosting inside, Oatmeal, sometimes Lorna Doones and my all time favorite, the mighty Coconut Raspberry Crème! A rectangular coconut cookie, with grooves on the bottom, spread with Real Red Raspberry Jam, a thick gooey layer of marshmallow over that, then dusted with Coconut! The absolute queen of the entire cookie rack! And, they were in my mother and daddy’s store, handy as a cookie could be. Those Coconut Raspberry Crème cookies cost more, and they were not always in the racks, so it was “now or never” when they came in. Those little glass doors were as handy as a cookie jar cover to me, all I had to do to enjoy all the cookies I could sneak was to outsmart my eagle-eyed sister. This meant I had to be sly. My first ploy was to offer to help sweep the floor for her. I would elaborately sprinkle the oily smelling red stuff that was used to keep the dust down as I swept carefully, watching for my opportunity. Hoping she would not notice my dawdling around the cookie rack, I would hold one hand behind me, ready to deftly, silently open the closest door, the one with the Coconut Raspberry Crème’s and slip my hand inside and grab for one, all the while watching her. It was a good plan, but knowing that my mother would be heartbroken for life if her baby daughter turned out to be a thief, in her own store, proved to be a deciding factor, and I just couldn’t go through with it. How could I face her?

Sometimes second thoughts really do save our skins. So I just kept sweeping, admiring and coveting those mouth-watering cookies. Sometimes I got to help change the cookie boxes when they were finally empty, a chore I lived for, that got me all the broken pieces in the bottom of the box. But, it took forever for all the cookies to be sold, and in spite of my vigilance, sometimes the boxes would get changed without me and I would not get the broken pieces either. Causing me to complain that I swept the floor with no reward.

All was not lost though, my girlfriend Julie and I played dress up or pretend grocery store over on her front porch on rainy days. How her mother ever put up with all the preparation it took for us to play store on the porch, dragging furniture out there, or whatever else she would let us use for “props” I can’t imagine. Sitting around surveying our front yard kingdom in kitchen chairs wearing her sister’s high heeled shoes and her mother’s old dresses, looking, we thought, for all the world like royalty, well, rich at least, just like the ladies who sat in the rockers on the porch of the old Medea Hotel in Mt. Clemens. Daintily nibbling our imaginary cookies, as we sipped our make believe tea from the empty cups of her prized little tea set, poured with a flourish from the lovely matching Tea Pot. The one with the shiny caramel colored trim and tiny blue little flowers around the tops; remarking to each other on how scrumptious those invisible Coconut Raspberry Crème’s tasted. We paid for everything we bought on credit, just like people did in my daddy’s grocery store. The “sky is the limit” when you are pretending. People were trusted. This was in the era before credit cards existed, and if a person bought on credit, there would be a little slip of paper in a certain part of the cash register, mother and daddy called it the “Till”, with the person’s name, the date, and the amount owed until it was signed, Paid in Full, and returned to the customer. We dutifully wrote down our names for two Coconut Raspberry Cremes, 10 cents, and placed our credit slip in our shoebox ‘till’.

Many years later, I stood with my mother and sister greeting the people who came to daddy’s funeral, many were in tears, apologizing to mother, confessing they had never paid him for their groceries. The store had been closed for many years by then, and she just smiled and put her arms around them, her former neighbors and customers, comforted them, saying, “He knew you needed it, it’s all right.” Others related how daddy had brought boxes of food to them, or forgave rent they owed him or even let them pay half, one woman told mother that daddy had been an inspiration to her all her life because of his kindness when her husband was out of work, and he let them skip a month’s rent. My parents have been an inspiration to me all my life also, so I knew of her sincerity, but it was still a blessing to hear.

There may be other stories about Russ and Bertha, hard working people in an era of hard times, who owned the Cottage Grocery, before the “Big War”, before the wartime rationing and all it’s difficulty caused them to close their store. It was too hard to keep track of which of their friends and neighbors, their customers for years, had the right to buy something they needed, and then have to refuse them because they didn’t have the correct “red stamps or green stamps or blue stamps” required by the government. There was no slip of paper to put in the “till” for that, only the endless paper work required to prove that your sugar and other items had been properly accounted for with the war stamps.

Thankfully though, when I was a kid, playing pretend solved everything, if we didn’t have something we wanted, we could just play store, and pretend we did have it, taking turns being the proprietor and the customer. Or we would play rich women in our dress up clothes and high-heeled shoes or rich woman and the maid, and take turns being the maid. The rich women got the high heels and long dresses, the maid went barefoot and pretended to be scrubbing the floor the whole time, somewhat like Cinderella, we suffered this because we knew Cinderella was the one who got the Prince! We chose rich woman because we surely did not want to even pretend we were witches. We dreamed of Glass Slippers as we crawled around on our knees. As I remember, Julie got to be the rich woman more than me, but more than 60 years later, and between friends, that doesn’t matter. It was her porch, after all.

Our daddy went to work every day, our mother was home with us and life was sure good, wasn’t it? Today, although I have been a wife, a mother, grandmother and now a great-grand mother, I still remember how wonderful it was to have just a nibble of just one of those Coconut Raspberry Cremes, the absolute Queen of all the cookies in my mother and daddy’s grocery store. My heart skips a beat at the thought.

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