By Megan McMorris
I first visited Taylor Court Grocery hoping to sweet-talk my way into a job. It didn’t work. Little did I realize, Mel Hafsos and Errol Carlson have famously manned their store personally since 1996.
Even though they weren’t hiring, they weren’t going to get rid of me that easily and the store quickly became a part of my routine.
With Mel cheerfully stocking the shelves and Errol chatting with customers behind the counter, the business and life partners made “picking up a few items” an event. In other words, don’t be in a hurry because the chat is part of the charm.
My “thing” with Errol was our pretending to be annoyed with one another. He’d start off with, “Oh, you again.” I’d follow with something along the lines of, “What do you want? $9.17? Fine! Take my money. Are you happy now?” Then he’d finish with, “With an attitude like that, young lady, let’s make it an even 10.”
As we’d discover, our shared snark is a part of our birthright. Arriving to buy a bottle of wine to celebrate my birthday last year, I looked up to see Errol wearing a party hat. “No wonder we get along so well! We’re birthday twins!” I pointed at my ID.
I have a long love affair with corner stores. As a child in small town Ohio, the corner store was the meeting place for me and my friends where I’d ride my bike to get Marathon candy bars and bubble gum.
In my 20s living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, I got to know my neighborhood bodega, where men played cards in the back and the owner and I shared a special “pointing and nodding language” to bridge our Spanish-English gap.
In my 30s I lived near NW 23rd Ave. Market on Thurman St, run by Homer for 50 years (RIP). Homer would bring my dog pepperoni sticks while his cronies sat on overturned milk cartons, read the paper and chatted about golf.
I like corner stores so much, in fact, that I even used to work at one.
On my first night at the Speedy Mart on Glisan St., I met Jesus who, while emphasizing the first syllable of his name, told me he had my back. He worked at the phone store next door and proved true to his word by knocking on our shared wall to warn me of unsavory characters or popping his head in “just to check in.”
Jesus wasn’t alone. Between the Vietnamese pool-hall owner two doors down, the barber shop boys down the block and the Halal market across the street, the other neighborhood businesspeople, and their customers, made it clear they “had my back.” I was their corner store lady, after all, and they believed in me. I didn’t want to let them down.
Sure, I had a few stumbling blocks. I broke the register on my second day in front of the very patient milkman. I set the alarm off once. I was afraid of getting trapped in the beer cooler, though slowly but surely, I got the hang of things.
I knew I had mastered the job when I could casually change the lottery machine paper in the middle of a transaction calm as a cuke.
When John in the Red Pickup could simply hold up a certain number of fingers and I’ll pull down that many blue Pyramid cigarette packs, I felt like a superhero. When my till finally started balancing out, that’s when I knew I had made it.
Some of my favorite customers used the corner store as their community hangout and it wasn’t unusual to see them several times a day. John the Marine would stand to the side of the line, chatting about his life as I’d ring customers up.
Tara, who shared her stories, her cooking and a nightly reminder that “I’m just down the street, so if you have any troubles, call me!”
Richard used the store as a one-stop shop to charge his phone, warm his feet, check the time and tell me about his day. “Hi sweetheart, let’s see if I have enough for a beer today,” he’d say as he’d empty his entire pocket contents on the counter for us to count together.
I only worked there for six months, but two years later, that experience is still in my day-to-day. It’s rare to go a day without seeing a customer, some of whom have become my friends, my confidantes, my community.
I stop and pet their dogs, I see them at the local tavern, I hire them for handyman work. Once a corner store lady, always a corner store lady and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I saw that the Taylor Court Grocery was for sale (owners Mel and Errol retired this year), I had a moment of nostalgia for life “behind the counter.”
On the other hand, I hope that I can’t get a job there because the new owners are personally running it, just like Mel and Errol did. I’m not alone in this sentiment.
“This store has been a gift to us and we’re so grateful for it and to this neighborhood that we love so much,” said Mel, quick to point out that they still live just down the street.
“It is our hope that whoever purchases the store feels a dedication to this wonderful community that we’ve been a part of for 25 years and does something to enhance the neighborhood and carry on the tradition.”
Taylor Court Grocery, currently for sale, is located at 1135 SE 80th Ave.