Some of my earliest childhood memories are about neighborhood convenience stores. I was reminded of this recently when my mother shared short stories of her own youth, recalling precious memories from the mid-1930s.
I thought I would share some of my own stories with her.
On my first day of kindergarten at McGuffey Elementary, Mom dropped me off at the classroom door, gave me a goodbye hug, and returned home to take care of my two younger siblings.
But I didn’t like being away from home and family, so I left the kindergarten classroom that morning, without notice, and walked back home by myself.
The walk was about eight city blocks, and it included a busy intersection with a traffic light at McGuffey and Weber. I don’t recall what words were spoken when I arrived home just 45 minutes after saying goodbye. Presumably there was encouragement rather than punishment.
Oddly, what I do recall is the neighborhood convenience store located along the route from school to home, on the northeast corner of that busy intersection. It had a screen door that swung both ways, which let customers push the door open whether they were entering or leaving. I thought that was nifty. The store’s inside, with its lights out, was cool. It was an enticing contrast to the glaring sun that bounced off the treeless pavement outside.
At that young age I’m certain that I didn’t have any pennies, so whatever treats there might have been inside, would have been out of reach for me. Instead, what I do remember, was the feeling of refuge and calm it provided. It was an urban oasis right in the midst of traffic and noise and grit.
Each time I reached that store on my walk back from school, I felt relief knowing that I was almost home.
In the autumn of 1964 we moved from Delno Ave to a new purpose-built house a mile away on Eddystone Ave. I began first grade that year at St. James the Less, our parish school. It too had a nearby convenience store, located directly adjacent to the convent. The sign above the front door proclaimed M&M Market. Naturally with a sweet name like that, it attracted my interest.
Outside, its tiny parking lot was always sticky from bubbling tar, exploding fizzy drinks, and melting ice cream bars. It was a sad entrance. On top of that, we were admonished by the nuns that it was off-limits to us. I suspect now that the rule was less about its unkempt entrance and more about the folks that cruised in for alcohol and cigarettes.
Luckily there was another convenience store within biking distance of our new home that wasn’t off-limits. It was located on Cleveland Avenue just south of Oakland Park Avenue. That one had all the right elements: a back door that was safely accessible from the alleyway, a darkened interior cooled on hot summer days by oscillating fans, soft wood flooring that had long since worn away all its squeaks, and penny candy.
Outside, the parking lot wasn’t much better than the one at M&M. It wasn’t paved in the traditional sense, but instead was littered with hundreds of bottle caps from the reusable glass pop bottles of the time. Coca-cola, Pepsi and RC Cola were the big three pop brands, sharing refrigerated space with 7-Up and sometimes orange Crush.
On my eighth birthday my weekly allowance was upped to eight cents, to match my age. That really couldn’t buy much more than a few too-hard-to-chew Tootsie Rolls. It was really more of a gimmick by my Dad to teach me the value of money and how to save.
Well I soon figured out a way around that paltry allowance: it was those glass pop bottles. Most of them were stamped with, “this bottle to be washed and returned,” and to encourage that, shopkeepers charged a 2-cent deposit on each bottle. But that wasn’t enough incentive for some people, who simply threw their empties out the car window.
I was the beneficiary.
On my walk home from St. James the Less I would sometimes find empty bottles on front lawns. If I picked them up and brought them home, Dad would bring them to the store when he purchased groceries for the week, and pay me the 2 cents. It was ready cash. That spurred me on, and I began taking a different route to and from school each day looking for new bottles from the night before. Eventually, I even took to cruising the neighborhood by bike, checking under bushes for any glint that might hold promise.
Not every bottle carried a deposit, and I had to learn which ones to ignore. Brown beer bottles were worthless. RC and Crush were confusing — sometimes they were deposit bottles, sometimes they weren’t. Coca-Cola and Pepsi were reliably worth the effort. I quickly learned to recognize the green color and distinctive shape of Coca-Cola bottles.
During that period, most bottled pop came in a 12-ounce size, with only a few still coming in the smaller 10-ounce size. But every once in a while, I’d find an empty on someone’s lawn that was a 26-ounce king size. Invariably they were Coca-Cola bottles, with thick, heavy glass. They carried a 5-cent deposit. Pure gold to me.
By the time I had saved enough to buy something with my allowance plus bottle money, I was probably nine or ten years old. Up to that time Coca-Cola was typically sold either separately or as a six pack of 12-ouncers. But that summer, the company was aggressively pushing their newer 16-ounce size. My best bargain ever was an 8-pack of 16-ouncers for only 49 cents.
It was a precarious ride home with one hand holding onto the bicycle handle bar, and the other lugging my all-too-heavy 8-pack. There was no free hand left over to operate the brakes to bring the bike to a safe stop. But I succeeded anyway, and secreted away my purchase to the back of my bedroom closet. Today I don’t remember how long those pops lasted or how good they tasted, but the excitement of my first big purchase never wore off.
Soon after that, 12-ounce aluminum cans came in vogue and my bottle deposit venture faded away. I think Dad was glad to get out of that business.
The convenience store business slowly changed too. And as customers opened their cans of pop behind the store and discarded the pull-tops on the ground, the bottle-cap parking lots were soon littered with new layers of shiny metal. I often did a double-take because the circular part of the pull-tab, from a distance, looked a lot like a nickle or dime.
By the time I started 7th grade at Medina Junior High, many mom-and-pop convenience stores were being replaced by Lawson. They had glass doors, bright lights and tiled floors. It was a brand new type of neighborhood store, featuring milk and bread and eggs. Real food. So the Lawson that opened up next to Medina on Oakland Park, was never going to be objectionable to anyone. Except it had nothing that a young boy wanted. And it was completely missing that forbidden lure that the others so strongly emitted.
The stores and I had both grown up, and nostalgia was the only thing that remained of those passing days. Eventually even Lawson disappeared from central Ohio, and I lost those reminders of my youthful bliss.
Much later in my life, on my first visit to Japan, I discovered that the Lawson chain hadn’t gone bankrupt, they had simply been sold to the Daiei company. Today, the Japanese have adopted those bright blue and white signs, with serif letters and a milk jug, and Lawson has become a full-fledged member of their urban landscape. The kana transliteration of the store’s name is ローソン that in typical Engrish fashion is pronounced Rōson, which is hard for me to get used to. But the Japanese think nothing of it, and see those corner stores as simply a convenient part of their go-go-go lives.
I see them with a nostalgic smile.
Originally published at https://medium.com on June 7, 2020.