My mind always goes back in time whenever I see people going in and out of neighborhood convenience stores. When I happen to find myself in one of these stores, I find myself looking at the items people purchase, in particular, young children.
While I have been paying attention to convenience store activities for many years, an experience last weekend convinced me to write this column. The determining experience was a drive, to a family affair in my old West Philadelphia neighborhood; an area I do not frequent as often as I did in the past. Thus, I was anxious to observe what exists or perhaps no longer exists in my old neighborhood today. I looked for the dry cleaning establishment in the 5900 block of Lansdowne Avenue that my sister had managed for many years. I could not help but to smile as I passed the old SEPTA trolley barn in the same area; which now contains buses instead of trolleys. Just to see Carroll Park brought back fond memories. Other former sights such as the Nixon Theatre, the Joy Movie House, the Imperial Ballroom and the former site of White Rock Baptist Church at 52nd and Arch streets all contained one memory after another; memories I would give anything to experience one more time. But there was a small building in the vicinity of 59th and Lansdowne Avenue that focused my attention on the convenience stores referred to earlier and immediately took me back to an unforgettable childhood experience. That building reached out to me and cried out for a trip back in time. A sign identified it as a “variety store,” the kind of variety store found in most neighborhoods and located in walking distance from our homes, back in the day.
I cannot imagine you grew up in any Philadelphia neighborhood without experiencing a variety store. The one you patronized may have been Orr’s or Mr. John’s or Ruffin’s. In my neighborhood it was Brown’s Variety Store. Can you really be from back in the day if you do not remember the neighborhood variety store? These stores were common in many respects, but they were unique in that they were typically Black-owned. They were typical of what was found in many Black neighborhoods in the past; businesses that we built, developed and maintained, due to segregation. Variety stores were just one of many examples. Of course, if your parents needed a large number of items, they went to the main shopping strip; back then called “the Avenue.” They had stores such as today’s Acme, which has remained a fixture in our neighborhoods. Some Thriftways are still around. However, the Shop n Bag, A&P and Penn Fruit disappeared some years ago. But small items like toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates, bags, rubbing alcohol, pet foods, sodas, bread, milk and other household items were readily available, in the variety stores of our neighborhoods.
While these stores sold a wide assortment of “goodies,” it is the candy that little boys and girls remember most. For most young children, the variety store supplied goodies that are clearly associated with the past. Do you remember Mike and Ike candy? Mike and Ike was my favorite then and more than 60 years later is still my favorite. Mike and Ike is the chewy fruit-flavored candy with a texture similar to a jellybean. I would go into Brown’s Variety Store and buy Mike and Ike by the box or I could buy it loose. I ate them by the handful. I never recall Mr. Brown weighing my Mike and Ike purchases. He had a certain size bag and he would fill it for a nickel.
Some of you were big Smarties fans. Do you recall the roll of 15 tart candies in assorted flavors? I also loved Root Beer Barrels, gumdrops, Blow Pops and candy buttons attached to a strip of paper. I suspect some of you went into your neighborhood variety store to purchase black licorice sticks or other licorice items. I was not a lover of licorice. However, I loved bubble gum, and Mr. Brown carried quite a variety. I was strictly a Bazooka Bubble Gum person. If Brown’s was out of Bazooka, I found my way to another store for my bubble gum. With Bazooka, it just seemed the sweetness lasted much longer and much bigger bubbles could be blown. There were some other favorites I purchased regularly, but for the life of me, I cannot tell you why I liked them. Included in this category were wax lips, wax bottles, candy cigarettes and Jujubes. If I went into Brown’s Variety Store on a day when I could be a big spender, I purchased things that I would not normally purchase. You must recall back in the day, when you had more than five cents, you stepped up to the counter and purchased a candy bar. I can still see myself asking Mr. Brown for a Turkish Taffy or maybe a Sugar Daddy. Then again, I might have purchased a Mound or an Almond Joy. Mr. Brown would just smile and acknowledge that I had probably received a larger allowance on that day.
Most variety stores had the same character. For the most part, they were small stores with shelves and showcases filled with goodies. In spite of their size, room was always found for a pinball machine and a soda case. I suspect the proprietor of the variety store in your neighborhood was just like Mr. Brown; he or she was friendly and always had a smile. Because the proprietors lived in the neighborhood, they were very familiar. In the event you were short a penny or two, they would trust you until the next visit. During the summer, the front door would be wide open. There was no air conditioning; just a fan. But you could always count on finding one or two people engaged in endless conversation with Mr. Brown. If there were no visitors or customers, a radio was Mr. Brown’s company. Given what goes on in most neighborhoods today, it is interesting to note that there was no barrier protecting the proprietor from shoppers or to separate shoppers from the merchandise. I cannot recall such a need, as neither stealing or was robbery a concern back in the day.
I recall horse-drawn wagons delivering items to the variety store. Aside from candy, other popular items sold in variety stores included ice cream and soda. Buying a scoop of ice cream, an ice cream sandwich or a Popsicle was something most kids experienced during the summer. A colleague with a gleam in his eyes about the Dreamcicle, that orange Popsicle filled with vanilla ice cream. Back in the day, ice cream was not ice cream unless it was Breyers. While I cannot name all the sodas found in Brown’s Variety Store, I can still see 7-Up, Royal Crown, Nehi, Crush and Coca-Cola. You did not discard the bottles once you were finished. It was important to save them so you could return them for a one or two cents’ refund. These pennies went a long way to supplement your allowance when going to the Saturday matinee back in the day,
No discussion of a variety store can take place without mentioning yo-yos. No discussion of yo-yos can occur without mentioning the most popular brand back in the day, Duncan. Paddle balls, jacks, caps, pimple balls for half-ball, marbles and comic books were also found in Brown’s and probably in variety stores all over the city at that time. These kept us occupied and out of trouble, especially during the summer when we were not in school. Neighborhood variety stores were also a great place for purchasing both white and Black newspapers. They also had most of the Black magazines on their shelves. Ebony was not the only one. Do you remember Our World, Color, Sepia or Tan? These were very popular magazines, back in the day.
I certainly miss many things from my old neighborhood; my family, friends, schools, commercial buildings, churches, parks, shopping areas, the warmth of the neighbors and the slow pace of life. Occasionally, when I find my way into one of the small dollar stores around the city, I have flashbacks to variety stores of the past such as Brown’s. The merchandise is different; the prices are different; the friendliness and customer service are not the same. But those fond memories of variety stores, in general, and Brown’s Variety Store in particular, are not lost. They existed right in our neighborhoods, back in the day and continue to exist in our memories today.