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Jack Zaleski column: Corner store was a sensory treat

I 'm old enough to remember when corner stores were in every neighborhood in every city. They were locally owned.

I 'm old enough to remember when corner stores were in every neighborhood in every city. They were locally owned. The proprietor likely lived upstairs and knew his customers like they were family.

The small stores were sensory delights -- scents wafting from spice bins and pickle barrels; the whirr of a bread slicer or the crank and ring of an ancient cash register; the smile and greeting from the owner in his stained apron; the hefty thud of a couple of lamb chops on a well-worn scale; the welcoming sag and squeak of scuffed and stained floorboards.

As a kid, it was an adventure every Saturday morning when Dad and I went to the store. No shopping list; it was in his head. But it was Charlie (Charlie's Market) who determined what our menu for the week would be.

"Got some good beef this week," he would say. And Dad would nod for a roast or, for special occasions, a couple of T-bones.

"Take a look at 'dem spuds," Charlie would say. "Just in from up Maine. Ten pounds? You got it."

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"Pickle?" And Charlie would fish a fat one out of a pungent brine barrel that was as tall as me.

Polish kielbasa was a staple at our house, so Charlie would spear one from the deli case, wrap it in wax paper and add it to our order, without a word from my Dad.

Cold cuts completed the order: veal loaf for my sister and me, hard Genoa salami for Mom, Polish ham for Dad.

And rarely, usually around Christmas, Charlie would hold a couple of pomegranates for us. Dad called them Indian apples. I can still feel the thrill of watching him cut into their leathery hides. He'd grin and hand my sister and me quarter sections that were ripe with sparkling crimson seeds, ready to burst into rivulets of tart-sweet juice with first bite.

In most cities, the mom-and-pop corner stores are long gone, replaced by supermarkets. The big markets are marvels of food retailing. They have everything anyone could want at any time of the year. Deli counters serve up a galaxy of high-quality sliced meats and cheeses that Charlie never dreamed of in his little place. Managers of the big stores know their customers and treat them well.

What's missing is the neighborhood intimacy that could only have life in a small store. What's missing is the owner-proprietor who not only knew his customers, but lived with them in the same neighborhood. What's missing is the one-of-a-kind character of each mom-and-pop store. It's been replaced by today's supermarket efficiency and homogeneity.

Nostalgia, especially nostalgia colored by childhood memories, is not necessarily the best way to record history. Nostalgia tends to filter out the realities of old neighborhoods and corner stores. For example, I also remember when the first A&P supermarket opened in my hometown and my parents all but abandoned Charlie's. Times were changing back then. Change will continue.

Who knows? Maybe in time the corner store will make a comeback. Maybe nostalgia will generate a return to neighborhoods that are more than tracts of cookie-cutter houses. Maybe "neighborhood" again will mean a self-contained community where the corner store was a meeting place.

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Not likely, but we can hope.

Zaleski can be reached at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.

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