From the American Scene: The Jewish Stationery Store
When the New York Telephone Company gave my father a dollar-a-week raise in 1896, just as he got married, my mother was ecstatic.
“But how will we spend $10 a week?” she asked.
That was before they became parents. With my eldest sister, ambition was born—the Jewish parental ambition to give the children “everything.” It goaded Papa and Mama from the placid status of the salaried-man-with-homemaking-wife into the tougher partnership of a candy store. By the time they had a quartet of daughters the candy store was a stationery store. Onward and upward.
This is the traditional line of evolution: At the beginning is the candy store. Wed it with a soda fountain and they may produce a husky luncheonette. Or mate it with a cigar-and-cigarette stand and in time there may be a fine little stationery store, which may grow to be a BIG stationery store.
In our day of specialization there are even greater heights to scale. One is the toy and sports shop, or “Hobby House.” This discards all the stationery store’s dusty clutter—the candy case, cigar and cigarette corner, the fly-paper and three-cent stamp—but retains the dolls, shiny toy autos, building blocks, puzzles, roller and ice skates. Added are such swank items as skis and archery sets—and fantastically priced rocking horses with real hair tails.
From the lowly candy store may also evolve, as time goes on, the full-fledged commercial stationery house. Along with the candy and smokes, this one tosses out the toys as well. Instead of the sheet-of-writing-paper-and-envelope for a penny and five pen nibs for a cent, this handsome establishment sells heavy bond paper by the ream, noiseless typewriters and lifetime fountain pens that write under water. Its most important customers are the purchasing agents for soulless business organizations in nearby office buildings.
But these are the dizzy tops of the ladder. The little candy store seldom hopes to rise so high. Of course, it has its own snobberies. It has an arched eyebrow for the equally poor but dishonest black sheep of the mishpocha—the bare-looking store, thinly stocked, which fronts for a backroom bookie place and fools nobody, not even the police. When the cops come to these places selling annual benefit tickets at a dollar a throw, they count out not two or four but fifty tickets-and no eyelash flickers on either side of the counter.
Of such chochmas my father knew nothing. To him, as to thousands of storekeepers then and since, a candy store is a candy store, a decent if arduous way to make a living and bring up a family. Papa’s first store, on Third Avenue and 82nd Street, served humble folk to the east, and to the west the “sports” from Lexington, Madison, Park and Fifth Avenues from 79th to 84th Streets. High silk hat and turtleneck sweater were often in the store at the same time. There was also a dachshund from the saloon across the street who came and stood patiently every afternoon until someone put a Staats Zeitung in his mouth. Because Papa’s new business included a healthy newspaper route, he felt twice blessed, and paid heavily—with borrowed money—to the man he was buying out.
To Papa and his contemporaries a paper route meant reveille between 4 and 5 A.M. It meant waiting on the nearest Third Avenue “El” station for the train from which his bundle of morning papers would come hurtling to the platform.
On a weekday morning the storekeeper divided this bundle between two strong backs-his and the helper’s—and off they went to deliver. But on Sundays the massive papers meant endless trips from, station to store, supplementing muscle with the baby carriage.
Back home Mama was up, waiting to pounce on the first bundle. The magazine and book sections, or the comic and scandal supplements, depending on the paper you read, were already in the store, having been delivered earlier in the week. Now, fast as the freshly printed news sections arrived, Mom “folded in” the whole paper with lightning fingers. Her sister, who worked in a factory and stayed over Saturday nights, helped fold. Meanwhile Pop and the boy ran back to the “El” station for more. And so it went until—in the blackness that precedes 6 A.M. in the city—they left for their fashionable route.
This went on day after day, month in and month out, for years. The route was sacred, for no matter what happens no candy store man would lightly deprive his customers of their Times, Heralds, Tribunes, Worlds, Journals or Presses. Not even with a prepneumonia grippe or a bad foot. Papa got through the foot infection with the help of that same sister of Mama’s. She pushed the baby carriage and did as much of the stairs-running as she could.
As for the boy helper, he varied. I suppose there were storekeepers so poor in relatives that they had to hire strangers. But from the time Mama was a bride of seven weeks, she and Papa were never to be lonely. There was always a greenhorn brother from Europe or a desperately poor cousin studying medicine, to occupy the cot in the combination stock room and guest chamber. So many relatives lived with us while working their way through an education that Mama in time named our place the “Candy College.”
Mama’s day began with Papa’s, at about 4 A.M. After his first breakfast she bolted the door behind him, built up the back-room fire for the babies and the store fire for the customers. She sterilized bottles, made formulas, fed the children, put diapers to soak, dressed herself and with the first faint flicker of morning light in the sky found courage to unlock the store. If the trade was for newspapers only, she didn’t come out. The papers were on the outside stand and the customer could leave his penny. Often the next buyer picked up both paper and pennies.
But the tinkle of the door’s bell meant inside trade. Mama would deposit the infant daughter on the bed soft with heaped up perenas, trip over the toddling daughter, and come out drying her hands on her apron.
Mama was strict about being fully dressed before unlocking the front door. She was a good-looking young redhead and uninterested in admiring glances from “loafers.” She’d rather stand five minutes—she often told Papa—by the candy case while a kid changed his mind ten times between orange slices, twelve for a penny, or “likrish” shoestrings, five for a penny, than sell some fresh guy his two cigarettes from an open pack of Jack Rose or Sweet Caporals.
In time she learned what several generations of candy store wives have since learned—that the loafers and hangers-on are necessary evils. They are both “store fixtures” and customers. They talk themselves dry and buy refreshment—gum, candy, a drink. Pop sold them either shaved-ice-with-thick-fruit-syrup or a dash of the syrup and squirt of seltzer. Today they spend a nickel or a dime for a coke.
The year we got “classy” and installed a phone, a custom was born that is still legitimate in nine candy stores out of ten. (The tenth will probably go mehullah.) The hangers-on adopt the phone number as their own. They give it to friends and bookies. If the storekeeper is lucky, they hang around at specified times to receive important calls. If not, the busy man can grumble and threaten to tear the phone booth out by the roots—in the end he goes or sends for the missing party.
And why not? You’ve got to oblige the customers.
When there were places to live in and maids to clean them, a friendly candy store man was often the unofficial clearing house between landlords searching for tenants and vice versa. Both maid and mistress told him their needs and he kept an eye open. (We had an enterprising colleague who even posted a bulletin board where the neighbors tacked up cards stating their wants. All he got out of it was good will and the sale of thumb tacks.)
For that matter, Pop was gracious to the ladies with big hats and snugly tied veils who would buy a profitless two-cent stamp, proffer a five-dollar bill and plead, “Oh PLEASE won’t you lick the stamp so I don’t have to undo my veil?” He was friendly to the old woman in housedress and felt slippers who knew from past kindnesses that the storekeeper’s educated daughter would write letters for her. (A time-honored East-European Jewish profession, incidentally—scribe to the goyim.) He never spurned the neighbors who came in for help in filling out forms—anything officially frightening like requests for citizenship papers or a plea to Civil Service for a street-paver’s job. He never progressed to becoming a notary public or an income tax expert, though he had extra forms to supply. But that was much later. Nor did Mama quite achieve the status of informal case worker and medical adviser to neighborhood women that many candy store wives attain. Too busy.
(Not to be stuffy about it, yet one wonders, in terms of public relations—that much worshiped phrase—how much it has meant to the Jews to have these plain, hard-working Jewish families dotting all the neighborhoods of the metropolis, living their lives day after day intertwined with the humble intimate routines of their Gentile neighbors. They celebrate Brotherhood Week every week in the year.)
In any case, the candy store motto, like that of a more royal house, is “Ich Dien.” Whether 1896 or 1946, a rubber check bounces—but storekeepers still cash checks for customers. Under pressure they still give credit till pay day, preferring to avoid friction with the goy whose friendly insolence can veer dangerously close to anti-Semitism. No change there!
Over the years the day’s shifting scenes are still much the same. The neat and busy morning folks grab papers and hurry to work. The shiftless amble down for later editions, jackets buttoned over collarless, tieless shirts. Housewives drift in bundleladen from morning marketing to pick up Hot Stories; they look better in the afternoon when, hair tight-ringleted and bodies tight-corseted, they stop for a pack of cigarettes en route to the movies or bridge game.
The children make their first mass appearance after lunch, with pennies to spend on the way back to school. The real children’s hour begins at three in the afternoon and lasts an hour or more. It involves sodas, cokes, chewing gum, candy, toys—plus much giggling and horsing around among the older boys and girls.
The day continues in waves. The betting fraternity almost rip the late sports edition from the stands. The working folk who hurried that way in the morning now hurry this way in the evening. Alas, most of them already have papers under their arms, but they do buy smokes.
After supper is like the finale of a musical comedy, with everybody onstage again and business at its best. The candy store man does not ring down the final curtain until the last of the movie crowd has straggled home and that can be after midnight. It’s a long day.
The children deserve more than casual mention, for they are and always will be the storekeeper’s meat, drink and poison.
Only a crab would scold the tiny, timid ones who take up time-honored battle stations, pressing runny noses and greasy hands on the windows, pointing and dreaming of riches to buy “that an’ that an’ that.” The bigger ones, who can read—at least the funnies—sprawl all over the newsstand, blocking traffic, riffling through paper after paper to steal a quick read. Every half-hour or so you go out and wipe them off like dust. And like dust they settle back.
Still it is well to remember: these children are your steady customers too. They came to Papa for their bubble gum, their yoyos, their pogo sticks, kazoos and “kakamamies,” pictures to be spat on and transferred to backs of grimy hands. And now they come to Papa’s successor for their comics—Superman, Captain Marvel, Krazy Komics and dizzying dozens of others. New comics blossom monthly, crowd the magazine racks, give the storekeeper a migraine headache when he reckons the weekly bundle of unsold “returns.” But it’s the current plague and he must take it or leave the profits.
Besides, was it any easier years ago to untangle thousands of long frail elastics when “return balls” were the craze? There were long periods when no self-respecting little girl would be seen on the street without one end of an elastic looped about her middle finger, the other plugged into a small ball that bounced on sidewalk or wall and snapped back to the hand like a homing pigeon.
We kept the balls in one box, elastics in the other and at each sale had to wiggle one pesky elastic from the twisted mass, knot it and poke it into the ball’s tiny opening. Every child expected this service for her three cents. Once we experimented and used some spare time to assemble a boxful of balls with elastics inserted, ready for sales. We were good and sorry. Then we really had a Laocoon act on our hands.
Ah well, the candy store man has always been purveyor to youth’s fads and fancies. And he learns to purvey in a hurry, lest impatient youth calm itself with a little harmless shoplifting. But the kids weren’t so bad. Some gangs did steal from outdoor displays or upset the newsstand on big nights like Hallowe’en. Some startled us by jerking open the door, yelling “sheeny” and stampeding off. We shrugged casual shoulders. Routine.
When it was serious stuff—when our wooden Indian was stolen—that was the work of adults. The kind man who ran in to tell Mama the Indian was being dragged down the block even helped her chase the thief. It was a third man, waiting in a hallway, who then stepped in and robbed the till.
In Jewish neighborhoods storekeepers sometimes suffered from real gang attacks—broken windows, large-scale robberies and anti-Semitic violence, including stink bombs. Only where the Jewish boys themselves organized gangs and fought back was there a respectful cessation. Which may or may not be an idea for today.
When my parents had two daughters and an incipient me, they decided to cross the Rubicon from candy to stationery. They also crossed a real river—the Hudson—for the new store was in Jersey City.
The stationery store being a step up socially as well as economically, our back rooms were now stock rooms and we lived upstairs in a cold-water railroad flat. The division between store and home, however, was pure theory. Actually the two lives were welded. The daily decision was always “Who’s changing Papa for dinner?” or “Who’s giving Papa his nap?”
At first we had a long pole to summon Papa or Mama from upstairs when trade got too brisk for the child left on duty below. The little helper would climb from a low bundle to a high one, on to a counter and then “bang” into the ceiling with a pole. Later Papa installed a buzz button which seldom worked—and finally, a telephone extension with crank handle. This was nice except that someone was always leaving the switch in wrong gear and cutting either house or store from contact with the outside world.
Christmas, New Year’s, St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, “Fourth July,” September school opening, Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving and so to Christmas again—the store changed with the Zodiac.
Once a year, like every stationer’s family, we lived and slept above a munitions dump for one breathless month. The City Hall permit stipulated that July 4th fireworks could be stored on the premises only from June 10 to July 10—and that was plenty! Also that a “No Smoking” sign be posted and a guard stationed to wrest lighted cigars, cigarettes and pipes from protesting customers.
“That’s a fifteen-cent cigar and I just lit it,” was the common wail.
You watched kid customers like hawks. Their idea of fun was to buy tiny packets of linked firecrackers which spluttered and exploded one from the other. The general intent was to light the first cracker, sneak the packet through the chicken wire fence surrounding the stronger explosives—and get out without being caught.
Some of the larger cannon crackers were powerful. A fifty-cent salute bought and tossed by a playful drunk shattered every bottle and mirror in Rountree’s saloon across the street and splintered Rountree’s wooden leg. “Safe and sane” unburnable sparklers sent hundreds of children to the hospital annually.
But ah, the aroma of punk, the hiss and sizzle of flower pots, the exquisite flowering of Roman candles! And ah, thank God, the growing public respect for life and limb, the ever tightening legal restrictions that finally put an end to this glorious mayhem.
At Easter the store was crowded with chocolate rabbits and stuffed rabbits, candy eggs, dainty pink and white “panorama” eggs and baskets to be filled and trimmed. And today I wonder—are there still little stationery store girls so carried away by the aesthetics of Easter basket trimming as to forget profits and Papa’s ire and put in too much of everything?
Christmas—the highlight, the big money month of the year. Our store literally overflowed upstairs. Cartons of bisque baby dolls were stacked from piano to ceiling in the parlor, and the large old-fashioned bathroom was taken over, tub and all. We bathed at a neighbor’s. The whole family worked itself into a frazzle, the children fell behind in homework and everyone was cheerful because business was good. Even in recent war years, when customers had to be convinced that wooden toys are as good as metal and will break almost as fast, Yule business was fine. But oh, the exhaustion on the night of December 24!
New Year’s still means horns, but not nearly so much confetti and serpentine paper as in my youth. The torn-up telephone book has taken their place. But when my sisters and I were growing up in layers and successively going out with beaux in that other postwar period, we couldn’t go out on New Year’s Eve no matter how many parties we were invited to. We had to sell horns for other celebrators to blow and confetti for them to toss through the air.
Valentine’s Day is still one of the stationer’s big greeting-card seasons, minus the charms of the penny sheets with their insulting cartoons and sentiments. Nor are dollar Valentines edged with real lace so plentiful today. The entire greeting-card business has changed. When people spent great sums on cards each holiday, the handsome profits were exclusively the candy store’s or stationer’s. Came the 5-and-10, came mass production and cheaper cards, and we lost our monopoly. Public taste changed too. Gooey sentiment went out and lightheartedness came in. There is now less of the “Let me take your hand in mine, dear friend, for I am ever thine” on the racks and more of the “Nuther birthday? Don’t fret. On you it’s becoming.” And in this era of specialization, the dealer must now carry birthday greetings to babes from one and two years up, cards to my wife, my husband, my sister, brother, mother, mother-in-law, father and fifth cousin once removed.
Saddest of all, buying a season’s greeting cards is no longer a rare and delightful outing for the stationer and his wife. When Mama and Papa took their annual trip to New York immediately after Easter to order the Christmas cards, and vice versa, they were treated like visiting firemen and taken to lunch by the Dennison salesman. Mama adored all this and Papa liked it, except for the genteel custom of serving only two thin slices of bread and butter with a meal.
My sisters and I lived in the store. It was in the store that we first found culture. Papa, supplementing the family income, took on a branch of the public library. As soon as our “big sister” could write numbers on a card, she took charge of this heavenly spot, and raced through as many books as possible before the card owners claimed them. Sometimes she glared at people who asked for a particular unfinished treasure.
We all read in the store. It was crime No. I, for displays of fountain pens and boxes of candy disappeared at such times, but we committed it. We also took books and magazines from stock and read them upstairs at meals. Mom complained that we spilled food on them.
“Did you make that book milchik or fleishik?” she would ask bitterly.
Often we’d hide behind a rampart of stock, deep in a book, while customers stood around waiting for someone to show up and serve them. My youngest sister could so lose herself as to sit in the middle of the store and weep heartbrokenly over a sad story. When nudged to get on the job, she would walk up to a customer with tearred eyes and quaver, “Can I help you?”
How could we not read in the store? On the shelves were everything from Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill to cheap editions of Shakespeare. The magazine racks ran the gamut from True Confessions to Vanity Fair, olav hasholem. I read the latter and thrilled to sophisticated pieces by Clare Boothe Brokaw, later Congresswoman Luce. I read the former and wondered how could an engaged girl have a baby when she wasn’t yet married?
Every store has a spot where the family hangs out. Ours was the wrapping counter. The only uncluttered stretch in the place, it was fine for spreading out the homework books of four girls from Grade A through college. It was just a nice height to jump up and sit on, too, and as I grew up and kept half of my dates in the store, particularly on quiet Sunday afternoons, I came to look on the wrapping counter as a sort of shady, secluded lover’s nook. (In this connection I scrupulously speak for myself, though I doubt if my three attractive sisters had less initiative than I.)
We weren’t the only “stationery store girls” to cram for college finals in a corner of a busy store. Jewish girls aplenty have taken degrees (many well in the upper thirds of their classes) with tuitions paid from the tills of kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, groceries, dry goods stores and junk yards. The business Jewish parents live by is not important; what does matter is their burning ambition to get sons and daughters out of the tough retail bracket and into something better, preferably professional.
In the candy and stationery business, as the cliché goes, “You get out of it what you put into it”—in investment, labor and brains. The mortality rate of stores has been estimated at some 10 per cent a year primarily because some view it as a “last resort” business to be entered into with no experience, small capital, and a hope of somehow muddling through.
Some can, some can’t. Men who know have told me this: that even today with a thousand dollars, you can rent a store and put in modest stock—if you know a jobber. Many ex-GI’s and former war workers are going into the little candy store business, with its simpler stock and fixtures, because even the humblest of groceries, let’s say, cannot be started with less than five thousand capital. And because a thousand-dollar investment is hardly likely to pay the entrepreneur a living wage after meeting costs, some of the war workers and veterans will have to give up and go job-hunting. The peanut scale of this kind of enterprise may send up the mortality rate, for it takes two or three thousand to start a “living” stationery store today.
Many stationers, like my father, never start a store but always buy an established business. This initial investment, including that intangible but expensive commodity, good will, comes higher but carries more security. Papa paid out sixteen hundred dollars for his first business-and that was a half a century ago. But he got a small, firmly established store in a good neighborhood and with a good newspaper route. (The sixteen hundred came from Mama’s girl friends, all working in factories and all saving for potential husbands. They were so eager to help, they oversubscribed the loan.)
Once your store establishes itself, the chances are good—not that you’re apt to get rich, but (with the whole family working and no outside hired help) you can make a fair living. Figures gathered just before the war, which are not believed to have changed to any great extent since then, indicate that successful storekeepers today earn from about $1,590 to about $2,900 per year.
My statistical friends tell me that of all the candy and stationery outlets in the East some three-fourths are Jewish. It seems still to be one of the basic “Jewish” businesses, bulking large—though well under 50 per cent-in the total of Jewish-owned stores. But they hazard no guess as to why.
Certainly it isn’t picked for ease of life. Certainly not for social gain. Our friends in the dry goods business were in a “nice clean line” and made more money than we. On the other hand our butcher’s daughters lived in a much less appetizing atmosphere—and had even less yichus.
And, as I have said, the hours are nothing to attract any but the most diligent. It is only lately that the candy store man and the stationer began to realize that they too are human beings with the right to close occasionally, and some of them even join the Chamber of Commerce or the Retail Trade Association. We were drilled in the tough routine of eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, but a storekeeper can now go to the movies two nights a week and get a coat of tan on occasional summer half-days (including Sundays).
Yes, today there are candy store keepers and stationers who don’t walk at a harassed trot when leaving the store for a few hours, There are even, people tell us, a few who find time to take part in Jewish community affairs.
To us this is amazing. Papa and his contemporaries were as Orthodox as the next fellow, but they saw the inside of a shul only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the store was closed tight and a Shabbus goy tended the newsstand. Those were the only days in the year when the customers couldn’t get in—but they got their papers nevertheless. He also wrested himself away for a half-hour’s Yortsait observance. But when it came to a Kaddish he had to hire someone for $50 to $1oo to ensure the continuity of the three daily prayers for eleven months following his parents’ death.
Came the time when their four daughters were all married and set up in housekeeping—one to a newspaperman, one to a mortgage expert, the other two to lawyers, all fairly “comfortable”—so Mama and Papa decided, “Enough is enough.” They retired comparatively young, in their early 50’s, but it was, as they said, “schoin tsait.” They were tired. Never, for one hour, had they lived for themselves.
So they sold the business, settled down to doing nothing—and nearly went out of their wits. The nostalgia with which they haunted their friends’ stores to “help out a little” was heartbreaking.
Then Mama discovered the Sisterhood. Papa began helping the shul get itself out of the red. They soon found other places that could use an energetic couple—drives for the orphaned and aged, drives for European Jews, drives for Palestine and drives for the community chests.
Today, in their newfound profession, they still keep candy-store hours.