Mar 2, 2009

The Corner Market

Although I doubt that there will ever be a show at the Historical Society, or brochures at the Visitors Bureau, perhaps nothing encapsulates the history of Allentown more than the corner grocery stores. Allentown proper, is mostly comprised of rowhouses built between 1870 and 1920, long before the era of automobiles and suburban supermarkets. Most of the corner markets were built as stores, and over the years many were converted into apartments. Up until the late 1940's, there may have been well over a hundred operating in Allentown. Some specialized in ethnic food. The bodega at 9th and Liberty was formally an Italian market. Live and fresh killed chickens were sold at 8th and Linden, currently H & R Block Tax Service. A kosher meat market is now a hair salon on 19th Street. The original era for these markets died with the advent of the supermarket. In the early 50's some corner stores attempted to "brand" themselves as a "chain", as shown in the Economy Store sign above. That market is at 4th and Turner, and has been continually operating since the turn of the last century. Ironically, as the social-economic level of center city has decreased, the corner stores have seen a revival. Most of these new merchants, many Hispanic and some Asian, know little of the former history of their stores, but like their predecessors, work long, hard hours.

ADDENDUM: The first supermarket's in Allentown were the A&P. In addition to occupying a former corner store near 2nd and Hamilton, they operated the super store on 19th St, home later to the Shanty Restaurant. The Shanty now is becoming TC Salon, subject of recent post on this blog, and a feature story in today's Morning Call by Jarrett Renshaw.

ADDENDUM 2: Although there was an attempt to brand the corner stores to appear as a chain, the Economy Stores sign shown, apparently came from an early A&P format in 1912 when they leased small stores. If this particular store was such an A&P, or just dressed later with a reused sign, I have yet to determine.


Anonymous said...

This was interesting. I had no idea about the history of the corner store. They are now known as "bodegas" in the Latin communities.

Alfonso Todd

michael molovinsky said...

up through the 1930's, the corner store was where you shopped. i used the figure "over a hundred stores", but it may well have been closer to 200. so many over the years were converted for other uses, both residential and commercial.

Anonymous said...

Hershey's ice cream, the Evening Chronicle, and conversation at the cash register with pre-politico Emma. My memories of moving to Allentown after college to start a career and family. Please, MM, more of these posts and less of that other stuff.

michael molovinsky said...

anon 11:12, sorry, there will always be "that other stuff" on this blog. if you remember a pre-politico emma, you must be much older than me.

Anonymous said...


The A&P wasn't at the Shanty location, it was on 19th at Hamilton, where St. Luke's now has a health center, in that small strip mall.

michael molovinsky said...

anon 5:34, my guess is that we're both right, but about 25 years apart. A&P started here in small stores, then gradually increased the size. It wasn't until the early 50's that both FoodFair and PennFruit joined the local market.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:34 and Mike:
There was in fact an A&P at 19th and Hamilton - it was, in its day a large store. The Shanty location was an A&P as well - hence the large A&P sign that hung inside the restaurant as part of the "kitsch" that adorned the walls and ceilings. I remember the A&P at 2nd and Hamilton Streets and the wonderful aroma of 8 O'Clock Coffee ground fresh in the store. It's a great memory. The store was open into the 1960s becomng a victim of the City of Allentown's redevelopment wrecking ball that wiped out many thriving businesses in the 100 and 200 blocks of Hamilton Street. Thanks for the post, Mike. My parents and grandparents - before them - owned a little neighborhood store in the 6th Ward in Allentown on Tilghman Street. Helped put 4 kids through college and my Mom still lives in the house. Lots of good memories.

Tpowder said...

I grew up on 6th Street, between Allen & Liberty. We had a corner store at 6th and Allen, and another at 6th and Liberty. There was another on the small street between 6th & 5th between Allen & Liberty. Within one block we had 3 stores. We knew all the owners, and they new us, as kids and our parents.
It was so simple to shop in those days, without having to drive to a supermarket.

LVCI said...

Coupla' More: Mohican Market-12th Street (S. of Hamilton), Table Rite- 4th near Susquehanna, Lehigh Superette- Near 12th on Lehigh St, Traub's- Emmaus Ave., Grim's Bakery- Linden St. I can think of a few more, but don't remember the names. Only the locations.

A small business owner and could earn a living and not to have to commute to work for someone else. If we had the number of small business like those, this current national economy would have little effect locally. This being so, because they wouldn't have been laid off every time some corporation's stocks drop.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is a sort of cuturally centered revival of corner store in some urban areas, but the corner store phenon was not limited to urban areas like Allentown. Growing up, each rural town in the northern teir had at least one general store. Stony Run (Berks. Co.) had two. Kempton had the general store at the mill, a small store at the orchard, I think a small store at Dotter's Garage. Lynnport had Mantz's Store. New Tripoli had Blose's (still does). Before my time, there was a store in Jacksonville, even one at Werley's Corner. Now on Blose's survives, along with a resurgent store in Wanamakers, and a convenience store at the Sunoco in Kempton. These are not the same.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memory of the "Economy Stores" -

Long ago (more than 40 years ago), everyone lived in a city or town. There were no "suburbs". The suburbs are a recent invention, or aberration, whichever term best fits. People walked to school, walked or took public transportation to work and found everything they needed within the city limits. In places like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, there were services, entertainment and all types of shopping right in town. Some communities had thriving downtowns in which late night hours extended past 8 - 9 pm, sometimes twice each week. You could buy cars, furniture, appliances, clothing for the entire family and much more. Up until thirty-five years ago, Allentown was like this. Back in the old days, the city residential neighborhoods were served by these mom and pop variety stores. I know that south Bethlehem seemed to have one literally at each corner and sometimes more than one per intersection.

Squirrel said...

Perhaps we will see a re-emergence of the corner store the same way we may see the return of the Victory Garden.

My grandfather had a store many many years ago on 12th & Tilghman. It was later moved out to 7th Street.

He passed away in the late 50's. Another family took over Zimmerman's market and ran it successfully for a couple of generations.

I believe it was the precursor to the ubiquitous convenience store.

Good post MM.

michael molovinsky said...

there were a number of grocers who really created iconic independent stores; among them were Lehigh Super Market, Daileys West End Market and Zimmerman's. My east end knowledge is weak, but i'm sure they also had one.

to LVCI: Mohican (on S. 9th) was part of a three store chain, in both bethlehem and Easton. Those three were earlier spun off an even larger chain with stores in ny. state.
In that size format, Hersch's seems to have survived the longest, even if split up with new owners.

Abner Kravitz said...

Everybody, let me explain the syrupy and soothing nostalgia post here ... Gladys is under doctor's strict order's to avoid the Villas. Her nerves are completely shot. You see, she can dish it out but she can't take it. And the Villas are really good at dishing it back. Gladys is totally pusillanimous and she runs for the hills (in wet panties) when the Villas retaliate. So she's convalescing ...

michael molovinsky said...

to whom it may concern;
i allowed the above comment by bill and angie villa to typify the 10 to 15 hostile comments i reject each week from them. they send out such nastiness to much of the blogosphere and also saturate the morning call forum. although they purport to care about women's rights, art and education, antagonism is their signature. they have resulted in most blogs resorting to moderation, and have diminished open civil discourse.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"antagonism is their signature."

Amen. Today, there were about 15 to 20 comments deleted as well as a few to which I responded. They have no interest in the topics being discussed. They are so self-absorbed they are unable to see beyond themselves.

Michael Donovan said...

Hello Michael:

I did not grow up in Allentown. Instead, it was a small town north of Boston. My father (and his father, and his father before that) owned a store on route 1. At first it was a gas station (one of the first north of Boston in 1907 or 08). Later, it was a grocery store, and after prohibition became a tavern. My father converted it to a "package" store in the early 50s because of the changing nature of the town.

Growing up in a small,family business provided many lessons. Most notably it was being polite and respect the customer. My father did not drink (ok, I do) because he saw the business as providing for the family and did not want to take risks.

We opened the doors, made deliveries, carried out packages, chatted, cashed checks, provided credits -- all those small town services one expected in the local store.

Alas, scale beat family. The liquor business in Massachusetts became much more competitive ad difficult to survive. My father finally sold the business and watched the new owners not support the style which he expected.

Like in every town and city, the small store owner lost to size. Those who survived offered special skills and relied on a local large business to remain intrenched and capable of providing well-paying jobs that could afford slightly less competive prices.

Michael, thanks for the history information. I understand and feel the message.

Best regards,

Michael Donovan