By Sarah Zollner Case
Just after the birth of our second child, we moved into a house on a corner lot in a historic neighborhood, across the street from a corner grocery store.
The little white storefront had been in continuous operation for nearly a century. In recent years, its current owners, Mel and Errol, business and life partners, ran the place on their own, seven days a week, 7 am-8 pm.
When our family arrived on the scene, Mel and Errol were in their mid-70s. They did the ordering, stocking, pricing, greeting, cashiering, bagging, answering the phone, swept the sidewalk and did the bookkeeping in longhand on the backs of used envelopes.
The shop carried a surprising variety of fresh produce and grocery staples. Shoppers could solve their dinner problems, grab a healthy snack on the way to soccer practice or snag a bar of fancy dark chocolate for a last-minute hostess gift.
This is where you bumped into neighbors and marveled at how their kids had grown since summer, where you could pet puppies tied up outside while their owners picked out popsicles from the ice cream freezer and where adults and children alike were greeted by name. The shopkeeper would hold your baby while you wandered the aisles.
This is the place where my daughter, at six years old and armed with a five-dollar bill, had her first opportunity to go to the store “by herself.” I stood watchfully on the front porch as she repeatedly looked left-right-left and finally decided it was safe to cross.
Mel was delighted to assist this eager first grader in find an onion. Errol counted the change back and made sure she understood how much she had paid, sending her off with his trademark phrase, offered as a farewell to adults and children alike: “Now, straight home with you!”
At Halloween, Errol’s neatly handwritten lists helped him keep track of a dozen or more volunteers for the grocery’s massive annual trick-or-treating event.
Eight stations were set up along the narrow aisles. Hundreds of neighborhood parents and tots would form a line snaking out the door and down the block, waiting for a turn to file through and beg for treats from costumed neighbors who had been conscripted into service.
Errol expected proper manners: children must say “Trick or treat” before being given a reward at each station and “Thank you” afterward. We do not suffer hooligans in this neighborhood. We are raising good citizens.
One day I popped into the grocery for a sweet potato. “Sorry,” Mel said. “I guess I don’t have any right now.” I left empty handed, figuring I’d solve the dinner dilemma another way. Coming home from an errand a while later, I found a solitary sweet potato on my stoop. No bill, no note, just a simple kindness.
Then the day came that “For Sale” signs were posted outside the store. It was inevitable – how long could two aging guys work day in and day out, in a tiring business with penny margins and precious little profit? In their case, the answer was about two decades.
We waited with bated breath. Would a developer demolish the dilapidated building and build skinny houses in its place? Would someone turn the store into a weed dispensary or convenience store? What would become of the neighborhood grocery, and in its absence, what would become of all of us?
Meanwhile, Mel and Errol continued to operate the business. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they masked up and kept working. It soon became clear this pace was not sustainable, even with shortened hours and closing on Sundays.
Errol, the older of the two, could no longer confidently operate the credit card processing machine or count back change. He seemed foggy about names and faces, too. As the pandemic raged on, one day our grocer friends quietly turned out the lights and locked the doors and didn’t open again.
In June of this year, Mel died unexpectedly. The younger and heartier of the two, it was a shock that he left us first. After he passed, family helped Errol transition to a residential memory care facility. The store sits empty, still waiting for the right buyer.
It seems unlikely that it will ever be a grocery again; perhaps it will be reincarnated into something new, but Mel and Errol created a gathering place where strangers became neighbors and even friends outside the weather-worn walls of Taylor Court Grocery.
When they turned off the lights for the last time, they handed the baton to the rest of us to figure out how to be a real neighborhood without them.