- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) - Small, mom-and-pop grocery stores once dotted nearly every neighborhood of Indiana’s oldest city.

Youngsters on bicycles eager to trade glass bottles for a bag of penny candy and a cold Coca-Cola considered them a second home, while housewives relied on them for sliced meat and cold milk in a pinch.

And they served up as many fond memories as they did cool fountain drinks on hot summer days.

“We lived right behind Sandefer’s grocery store,” said former Vincennes resident Tom Pea, already chuckling with the memories as they came flooding back. “It was really cool to have a store like that right in the same block. We’d sneak out all the time, my siblings - my mom had 10 kids.

“We’d walk down the alleys looking for pop bottles. We’d take them in and get a nickel or a dime, whatever they were worth. And I remember they had a Coke machine right out front. I thought that was so cool, that we could walk down anytime and get a cold Coke.”

Pea, too, remembers fondly the couple that owned the little grocery store. Living just a couple of doors down, they would, on occasion, meet the littlest members of the Pea family after hours when they needed a last-minute addition for the dinner table.

“That’s just the hometown camaraderie those stores offered,” Pea said.

Phyllis Patterson lived adjacent to Purcell’s Grocery Store near 13th Street and College Avenue. Her kitchen led right into the one-room grocery; her mother ran it while her dad taught at a local school.

And as soon as her math was good enough to make change, she was serving loyal, neighborhood customers, too.

“I’d sell penny candy to kids, carry out groceries, do the stocking, write prices on cans,” she said. “We had an ice cream freezer and sold ice cream cones all the time. We had a meat counter, and my mother sold fresh ham salad on a regular basis.

“Sometimes the milk man would drive me around the block a few times,” she said with a giggle. “It all made for a really fun childhood.”

They were familiar, family-owned places where neighborhood children congregated and adults checked in for the latest town gossip. They represented, in many cases, extended families where payment for goods could be made - well - whenever.

“They’d let us run accounts for weeks,” Bob Dunham, chief of the Vincennes University Police Department, said of McCool’s, a grocer once located in the 1500 block of Wabash Avenue. “They just kept everything written down in a book behind the counter.

“We’d run down there to grab something for mom, and Mrs. McCool would yell, ‘Now, you tell your mom and dad they’re behind one or two weeks on the account!” he said with a laugh.

Years ago, before the prevalence of cars, little grocery stores were a necessity. People liked to live, work, play and shop in a relatively small radius, so an abundance of them simply made sense.

Local historian Norbert Brown said in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and even ‘50s there were likely as many as 50 small groceries operating in Vincennes at any given time. There were 67 listed in a 1910 city directory; 79 in one from 1939.

But after World War II, big box retailers - super markets with aisles and aisles of food and home goods - popped up in city’s across America. People were suddenly more mobile, and driving across town to the new, fancy grocery store became the thing to do.

And it had just as much to do with the numbers - families trying to balance their budgets in tight times. Large-scale grocers could buy food items in bulk, thereby passing the savings onto customers. They also had more choices and a greater variety of goods.

So changing trends and cheaper prices began shuttering mom-and-pop groceries everywhere.

There was Esther’s, Key Market, Melvin’s, Stoop’s, Hensley’s, Anton’s, Schmidt’s, Eddie’s, Johnson’s, Ballard’s, Piper’s, Bey’s and so many others. Many have been torn down; some have been converted into other businesses or even homes.

But while they may be gone, their memories live on.

“My mom would send me to Tony’s Market, it was on 11th Street between Oak and Locust. I’d get lunch meat, bologna mainly, and a gallon of milk when she needed it,” said Doug Crowley of Vincennes. “And Borden’s on Main Street, that was when the high school was downtown and we had open lunch. You could leave campus and go eat.

“We’d all go downtown, and for 50 cents, you could get a ham and cheese sandwich, lather it up with a bunch of mayo,” he said, chuckling at his youthful overindulgence. “And then we’d get a bag of chips, sit in the back room and smoke.”

At 90 years old, Richard Kixmiller, now a resident of Newburgh, says small, neighborhood grocery stores formed the very fabric of his life. He grew up across the street from Melvin’s at the corner of Sixth and Cullop streets, and even as he moved around town, he was never very far from a local grocer.

His first job was at Eddie Truelove’s, he said, on Sixth Street, and he worked for another over on Second Street, too.

He then took a job at Security Bank where he handled many local grocers’ accounts. And for a short while, he was a salesman with General Foods, calling on them for weekly orders.

“Oh, I’ve got stories, lots and lots of stories,” he said proudly. “You just can’t imagine all the memories those little grocery stores bring back.

“There was just nothing better than a bottle of pop - a glass bottle, that is - on a warm summer day. That was quite a treat.”

But, perhaps, maybe - just maybe - these don’t have to be the memories of a single generation.

Grocery store trends are changing once again, and the customer service associated with mom-and-pop stores seems to be re-emerging.

Popular food blogger Jenna Telesca with Supermarket News says large-scale grocers are circling back to that early-20th century model but with a technological twist.

She predicts that retailers will begin making the most of technology to understand shoppers’ needs and wants before they, themselves, even do.

Already, shoppers can load up their “virtual” carts online and have someone meet them at the door with their order - complete with a smile and, perhaps, even a recipe or two based on their selections.

And some large retailers have remodeled their departments to offer shoppers the more personal, one-on-one experience once provided by smaller shops, with the butcher in one corner and specialty cheeses in another.

Even millennials are seeing history come full circle, opting to live, work and play in close proximity, sometimes ditching cars in favor of walking or riding bicycles.

And one local family is answering the call.

Vincennes natives Quenna and Jesse Easley recently opened a little dry goods shop, Easley’s Discount Grocery, at 1101 Washington Ave. They often travel to Princeton to a similar store, and thought the model would fit well here, too.

So far, the little shop is full of bulk candy bins in the front and shelves and shelves of dried goods - cereals, granola bars, spices, oils - are sold for $2 or less in the back.

“We’ve just always wanted to start a little mom-and-pop shop,” Quenna said with a smile, 1-year-old Sawyer balanced on her hip. “We’ve been open three weeks, and so far it’s been pretty good.

“We just thought this was something the community really needed.”

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Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://bit.ly/2psQjiK

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Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://www.vincennes.com


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