Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Corner Grocery Store Revisited...

By Jim Heffernan
Before supermarkets, corner grocery stores supplied Duluth’s West End...

Recently, as I was shopping for a few groceries at one of Duluth’s largest supermarkets, I found myself in the bakery area needing to move on to the deli.

Looking down the long aisle between the two departments, I realized that the distance between the bakery and deli was almost a city block, greater than the distance between the home I grew up in and the corner grocery store where my family bought most of its staples.

That home was in Duluth’s West End well over a half century ago—long before anyone ever dreamed the neighborhood would change its name to Lincoln Park and before that neighborhood—or any other in Duluth—lost its grocery outlets to the advent of the supermarket era.

We were located on 23rd Avenue West, between Fifth and Sixth streets, and our nearest grocery was on the northwest corner of 23rd and Sixth. It was just one of several “mom-and-pop” grocery outlets within short walking distance from our house.

The Sixth Street grocery was such a short distance away you could sit down to dinner, realize you were out of something needed for the meal (ketchup?) and run to the store and get some before the food on the table got cold. Handy. Very handy, those corner groceries.

Counting on my fingers (I always have), I realize that there were eight small grocery stores within three blocks of my house, all of which we patronized from time to time, depending on the urgency and nature of our needs. Some were just confectioneries (although they stocked basic groceries in addition to candies), others also had meat departments staffed by official meat cutters and at least one had a self-contained bakery.

Our neighborhood was not unique. Throughout the city, every residential neighborhood had its grocery stores that served nearby residents who, as a rule, simply walked down the street to pick up whatever they needed.

The eight stores in the heart of the West End near our home are largely forgotten today, and even the thought that they existed at all, and that supermarkets were unheard of, is alien to most people today. But thanks to the increasing number of candles on my birthday cakes, it’s not alien to me.

So here’s a brief compendium of the West End stores I knew best as a youngster in the 1940s shortly after World War II and into the early ’50s. By the end of the 1950s they had largely disappeared, yielding to larger, full-service, stores like Piggly Wiggly and National, serving entire sections of the city from one building.

I’ve already mentioned the Sixth Street market near our home, operated in its later years by the Archambault family. These owners, and some before them, became almost like family to their regular customers. The building is now a residence.

A block west—24th and Sixth—was a somewhat larger store I knew as “Sternal’s store” as a child but was operated by the Natalie family toward the end of its existence. The store part of the building is now vacated, with apartments above.
Just half a block south on 24th, was Charlie Caskey’s—a combination meat market and light groceries. It was a block from our house and I was often dispatched to Caskey’s in the late afternoon to pick up pork chops or hamburger for our supper. The building is now a one-car garage.
Another half block down 24th, at Fifth Street, stood Olson Bros., a full service market—groceries, produce, meats and on-site bakery, not to mention every imaginable candy of the day for the nearby Lincoln Junior high kids. (I popped a grape into my mouth from their window produce display one time and I’m still feeling guilty about it.) We shopped there too, from time to time. The much-altered building now houses the Boys and Girls Club.

Directly across 24th from Olson Bros. was a small grocery store operated by the Kramnic family, who lived nearby. Kramnic’s stocked such things as yo-yos and other items appealing to kids, and, like Olson’s, a display case chock full of (teeth-rotting) candy, not to mention wax lips and wax buck teeth.

South on 23rd Avenue West from my home, on Third Street just east of 23rd were two more grocery stores, one with meats operated by Joel Johnson and his son Delbert, and the other by Joe Lee and his son Norman. Both buildings are still there, Johnson’s today operated by another Johnson family, the bakery Johnsons.

Straying a bit farther afield, two blocks east of my childhood home, at Piedmont Avenue and Sixth Street (where 21st Avenue West meets Piedmont) was Repke’s store, with groceries and other things, like comic books. Thank heaven for Repke’s and the comic books. How else would I have learned of the exploits of the day’s superheroes, like Captain Marvel (whatever happened to him?) and western stalwarts like Lash LaRue, who tamed the Old West with a bullwhip. Superman and Batman comics were available there as well. The building is gone.

Once these handy neighborhood stores started to disappear, my family had to actually go out of this three-block radius to a good-sized, full-service (meats, produce, everything else for the pantry and fridge) neighborhood grocery, Hjelm’s, at 21st Avenue West and Third Street, across from the imposing St. Clement’s Catholic Church, itself long gone.

Hjelm’s—later Hank’s market operated by the Lysaker family—delivered, making it possible for customers to call with a list of grocery needs in the morning and have them show up in the kitchen in plenty of time to prepare dinner. For some reason in that bygone era it was tolerated that grocery delivery boys (always boys) could walk right into your unlocked house without knocking and deposit the order on the kitchen table. The Hjelm’s/Hank’s building is now apartments. 
Source: PerfectDuluthDay

Not far off, even in the mid-’40s the clinking and clanking of grocery shopping carts were starting to sound through the neighborhood. One of Duluth’s first modern-style markets —serve yourself with shopping carts and check out near the door—had been established by Piggly Wiggly at 2025–2027 West Superior St. in the heart of the “friendly” West End business district.
That clinking and clanking became the death knell for the corner grocery stores, most of which were gone by 1960 as Piggly Wiggly and others established themselves in large stores with big parking lots, often in strip malls. The final holdout, LaPanta’s market at 23rd Avenue West and Superior Street, lasted until the 1970s by staying open when the supermarkets were closed—Sundays and late at night.

The corner stores are missed, though, when you sit down to dinner and realize you’re out of ketchup.

Originally appeared in Zenith City Online on February 4, 2013
We are gradually reprinting the columns I wrote as a columnist with Zenith City Online that focused on growing up in Western Duluth. That area history site changed format a few years ago to a blog and no longer archives columns.