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The Lost World of Neighborhood Groceries

History of neighborhood groceries

It wasn't just candy, but that's what I went there for!"

03.13.01Whenever young Bernice Boley had a little money, she’d head over to Vincent’s grocery for some penny candy: this was the 1930s, and a handful of hard candy could be had for just one cent. Vincent’s was right across the street from Whitworth, where Bernice went to school, and when the last bell rang there’d sometimes be quite a crowd.

The tiny store occupied the front room of Mrs. Stella Vincent’s house, and it allowed Mrs. Vincent to earn a little extra money at home – no small matter during the Great Depression. The house had two entrances, each with its own porch: a larger public one for the store, and a private one for the family. Inside, Bernice recalls, the store had “glass counters, and things were displayed on shelves. You had to ask for candy at the counter, and they’d put it in a bag for you.”

Mrs. Vincent’s children went to Whitworth too, and she knew the neighborhood kids well enough to help keep them in line: when Bernice’s little brother tried to buy some candy with a ten-dollar gold piece he had “borrowed” from his mother’s keepsake drawer, Mrs. Vincent called his mother to inquire, “Do you know your son’s in here with a ten-dollar gold piece?” Mrs. Boley was grateful for the call.

The City Directory for 1937 lists hundreds of grocery stores in Seattle, at least 80 of them in the Rainier Valley. Tiny groceries in people’s homes served as proto-convenience stores, supplementing the larger grocery stores in regular commercial zones. Bernice’s mother, for instance, did most of her shopping at Keefe’s Grocery in Hillman City (on the northwest corner of Rainier and Orcas). “She probably went there once a week or once every two weeks. Keefe’s delivered sometimes, too.” But she might send Bernice over to Vincent’s once in a while if she ran out of milk or eggs. Places like Keefe’s allowed customers to run up a tab and pay their grocery bill monthly, or when they could afford it. Vincent’s and other “cash groceries” required payment at the time of purchase.

Dan Fink remembers at least three different cash groceries in the Mt. Baker neighborhood where he grew up in the 1960s. Danny, like Bernice, was a consumer of penny candy in his youth. He says the Mt. Baker Cash Grocery at the bottom of York Road “was our favorite little store, because it was right on the way home from John Muir School. There was a little old guy who ran that store with his wife, and their son and daughter-in-law also lived right by the store. I used to play with the grandkids. So we stopped there every single day [after school], and then sometimes at night my mom would send us down to the store to get some bread or some milk, instead of going to the big grocery store.”

When Dan was about eleven, he and some friends had a memorable experience at their favorite store: “We thought we were pretty smart. We also didn’t like to spend too much money on candy, but we wanted the candy. So we thought the prices were too high. We decided to put up a picket line in front of this little store. We hand-painted some signs that said, “Unfair, Candy Prices Too High.” And we marched in front of his store. This guy was probably in his sixties, and he really got upset. We’re lucky he didn’t have a heart attack. He came out and he was just screaming at us.”
Dan and his friends’ foray into political activism did not have the desired effect on candy prices, alas. “No, in fact, I think we might have been not allowed in the store for a while!” 

The Mt. Baker Cash Grocery lasted into the 1960s: when Danny was thirteen, he bought a twenty-eight cent bottle of bleach there to dye his hair. But by that point most of the small neighborhood groceries – and the larger ones like Keefe’s – had been driven out of business by the new, enormous, car-oriented, lower-priced supermarkets.

Vincent’s and the other in-home groceries all reverted to residences – today you’d never know that these houses were once grocery stores. Other former groceries around the neighborhood are easier to spot. A few still serve the neighborhood as convenience stores, but most have been converted into daycares, businesses, even homes. Their odd corner entrances and large display windows reveal their previous incarnations, reminders of the lost world of penny candy, twenty-eight cent bleach, and small-scale local retail.

by Mikala Woodward