NECESSITIES — Where did we shop prior to Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Albertson’s? Many Jacksonville residents looked no further than several blocks away: They frequented neighborhood grocery stores. Sometimes operated by a mom & pop, these enterprises were sort of like convenience stores: They turned up everywhere, and they offered a variety of products. Neighborhood grocers, though, did provide more substantial edibles, like meat & vegetables, rather than focusing on fast snacks.
The heyday of the little markets occurred during the early to mid 1900s, before supermarkets muscled them from center stage. Just check the 1925 Jacksonville city directory. It lists over 600 small groceries, ranging from the Abdullah Brothers to F. A. Zeising. And remember that far fewer people lived in the city at that time. In contrast, the 2002 BellSouth directory indicates a smaller number of grocers, even counting the convenience stores. The businesses in the 2002 volume are often franchises, not unique operations like most of the old-time neighborhood markets.
Just sixty years ago, local grocers had already begun to fade from the scene. Jacksonville shoppers patronized large, chain competitors like A & P, Piggly Wiggly, Setzer’s, Lovett’s, and Daylight Super Markets. By 1955, the self-service supermarkets were responsible for 60% of America’s grocery sales. And chain convenience stores have also carved out a large niche of the food retail industry. In 1965, for example, Jacksonville residents dashed into Seven Elevens, Johnson’s Mini Markets, and Pak’s Zippy Marts.
OCALA RECOLLECTIONS — They’re going, but they’re not forgotten: Neighborhood groceries bring back warm memories. A store in my Florida hometown has even popped up in a handful of my dreams over the years. I often stopped by there as a kid during the Sixties & early Seventies. “Betty’s” was run by Betty, a senior citizen known throughout her Ocala neighborhood. Her grocery was located in its own little building, an old, two-story, concrete block structure on a corner lot. In front was a dusty parking lot covered with lime. The slamming of the store’s screen doors was a familiar sound to local customers.
“Betty’s” didn’t offer fresh meat & vegetables, but it did maintain a small supply of such edibles as bread, grits, macaroni, canned food, and pancake mix. When I knew Betty, however, she probably made most of her money from candy & soda sales. Her store proved a mecca to students who attended Eighth Street Elementary School and Osceola Middle School, both located across the street.
According to neighborhood lore, Betty’s father bestowed the grocery to his daughter during the 1940s. Betty was short, heavy-set, and bespectacled, a very kind lady who may’ve been a spinster. Kids & neighbors often visited her. She held court in a wooden rocking chair behind crowded counter tops & glass cases, crammed with penny candy, display stands for BC Powder & 666 Cold Remedies, and other tiny items. The store looked rather dark and dusty, but it didn’t smell musty, since Betty kept a large backdoor open for circulation and a little light.
SWEET TOOTH PARADISE — Kids loved to buy stuff at Betty’s. During the mid Sixties, a candy bar & a small Coke cost a dime, plus a penny deposit for the bottle. Youngsters would just leave the money on the counter. They then sat on an outside step and drank the soda, soon returning the empties for the one cent refunds.
Pop sickles and Nehi grapes also tasted “groovy” on a hot, sticky day. Betty would patiently cut a pop sickle in half for a child who wanted to share with a friend. This proprietor didn’t like to see her little customers disappointed, as I witnessed one morning when I was about four. One of her penny gumball machines contained a few pieces of specially colored gum that could be redeemed for a dime’s worth of other candy. When a unlucky boy spent a lot on the machine but didn’t receive a special gumball, Betty unlocked the dispenser’s top and used a spoon to fish around for one, giving it to the child.
Betty also saved RC bottle caps for my older brother & his friends. They used them to see movies at the now-closed Ocala Theater. RC sponsored matinees that drew hundreds of kids, lined up along the side of the downtown theater into the back parking lot. The company required a certain number of its caps for admission.
What fun we had trick or treating at Betty’s! Each Halloween, my brothers & I climbed the outside staircase to Betty’s teeny apartment above the grocery and stood on the landing as she handed out homemade fudge, fresh from the stove. When I was small, I was all eyes, peering into the living room. It amazed me that someone could reside above her place of business. And I remember how surprised I was when I once spotted Betty at the nearby Winn Dixie. She appeared to me to be a fish out of water, since I had known her to always be at her own store.
When Betty passed away in the mid 1980s, it seemed like the end of a local institution. On behalf of the neighborhood, my mother placed a flower wreath on one of grocery’s doors.
Candy necklaces, wax lips, and Sugar Daddies gave way to scanners, modems, and CD burners. At first, the old grocery was revamped and turned into a fabric shop. It is now occupied by a popular computer store.
–written by Glenn Emery