Grab some milk on your way home: An ode to the bygone neighbourhood grocery store
It all started with a bowl of macaroni and cheese. One drizzly afternoon I was craving my favourite comfort food when I discovered I was out of milk. Without a car, I realized the closest grocery store was at least a 25-minute (uphill) walk, and the closest corner store at least 15.
I asked myself: was the macaroni and cheese worth the uphill battle in the rain? In the end, I called my husband, who had our vehicle that day, and asked him to grab some milk on the way home.
But my pasta predicament got me thinking about the beloved corner grocery store. These days they are fewer and farther between, with a limited selection of mass-produced bread and processed foods.
What happened to the family-run grocery stores of St. John's?
The search begins for the provisioners of the past
During the pandemic, my mother-in-law took us on a walk around the neighbourhood where she grew up on Mayor Avenue. Even though Rabbittown was somewhere we walked regularly (especially during the peak of the pandemic, when daily walks were the only way to get outside) she opened my eyes to a world of grocery shopping I have rarely experienced in my 30-something years of existence.
"There was Coveyduck's store, and this was Cook's. We always shopped at Greene's because we had credit there — oh, and we never shopped at Shea's because it was owned by Catholics, and we were Anglican."
It went on and on. On one street alone there had been more than five little stores, attached to people's homes, now nothing more than an awkward addition cloaked in new vinyl siding.
In our new neighbourhood, I walk past Hamilton Convenience every day, wishing it were still open so I could grab a carton of milk, some bread, or even a freaking KitKat. And through researching our street I found out there were not one, but three grocery stores — Byrne's, O'Brien's and Bradbury's — within a five-minute walk in the 1950s and 1960s.
So I decided to put the call out on social media to see if I could track down some information about these bygone grocery stores to try and figure out what happened.
The response was overwhelming.
Dozens of emails flooded my inbox with stories of fond memories, selfless acts and historical anecdotes. The Facebook comments piled on top of each other, each person more excited than the last to share their own memories. People spoke about being sent "on a message" with a note in hand for the groceries, sucking on homemade bull's-eye candies (homemade molasses toffee) and how kind their local grocer was in wartime or extreme hardship.
"My great aunt ran a corner store," said one Facebook user. "I remember my grandparents telling me about how they kept running tabs for customers during wartime because a lot of people couldn't afford to pay. She had a kind soul."
Another talked about how their local grocer was a lifeline in the 1960s.
"When we were young, Mom used to phone in her grocery order to Belbin's for delivery," explained Janine Inkpen, one of the dozens who shared her memories of the 1960s.
"One time while Mom was reading off her list on the phone, my brother and I started singing it to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas: 'four tins of tuna, three bags of carrots, two golden apples…' Mom was laughing so hard she had to hang up, pull herself together and call back and apologize."
Joan Sharpe remembers that her uncle Gerald Seaward owned Sea View Grocery on Livingstone Street, "a corner store that once sold two cigarettes at a time, two aspirins at a time, two teabags at a time, or a couple of Tums out of a bottle."
St. John's has an affinity for its little shops. But how did we go from a few grocery stores on a street to a few big box stores per kilometre (or more)?
Early grocery stores in St. John's
In the early 1800s, long before the island joined Canada, most residents relied on merchants for their food supplies (although many made their own bread, milked their own cows and grew their own vegetables, but a commentary on that is another article).
Angela Coleman Gibbons looks back fondly on her family's heritage with grocery stores and is researching the genealogy of her family, which turns out to have a big grocery connection. Her great-grandfather, Edward Coleman, emigrated from County Cork, Ireland, and opened a store at 340 Water St., the former Silver Building and now Shamrock City pub. Her husband blew up an image on tin of Coleman in front of his store, and it now hangs in her home.
"He sold shoes, boots and groceries — you can see rabbits hung in the window," said Gibbons.
According to family lore, when the Colemans came from Ireland "one brother stopped in Nova Scotia, one in Corner Brook, one in St. John's." Perhaps those Colemans in Corner Brook are part of her grocery store dynasty?
By the middle of the 19th century as St. John's slowly urbanized, storekeepers grew in numbers, particularly along Water and Duckworth streets. Heading into the 20th century, as the number of imports increased so did the retail trades selling dry goods, millinery and furniture in downtown St. John's.
In Hutchinson's Newfoundland Directory of 1864-1865, shops like those owned by William Cullen at 348 Water St. or Michael Farrell at 161 Duckworth all advertised the sale of "groceries and liquors," while John A. Eden, commission agent and auctioneer at 153 Water St., sold "a general supply of provisions, groceries, etc., always on hand."
It wasn't until the first half of the 20th century that grocery shops as we remember them came onto the scene, like Marshall and Rodger at 127-131 Water St., which would have sold dry goods, canned food as well as leatherware and clothing — a precursor to the department stores.
Grocery stores abound and families rise above
It was in the 1920s and 1930s that St. John's really saw dramatic growth in the family-run grocery store, as they began to appear on many street corners outside of the downtown core. Many shops were part of the owner's home, and families grew up either above or next door.
JJ. Duff's Supermarket opened in the early 1930s on the corner of Casey and Monroe. His son Garry Duff remembers that it closed in the early 1960s. The family's supermarket on the corner of Freshwater Road and Empire Avenue operated from 1956 to 1972: "Our family actually lived in an apartment on top of the supermarket," says Duff.
Carolyn Buccongello also lived above her family's store, Coady's, at 184 Merrymeeting Rd. when she was growing up with her parents and five sisters. The store, owned by her parents Jerry and Theresa Coady, was open from 1951 to 1989 and sold fresh vegetables, deli meats and fish, magazines, pop and tinned food, among other things.
"They had walk-in customers, especially from the neighbourhood and the local schools. But a large part of their income came from regular customers who phoned in their family orders every week, and my dad would deliver the groceries to them," explains Buccongello. "They operated the store for almost 40 years and never used credit but would sometimes help out a family in need and let them pay later."
The family support didn't end there Buccongello remembers that their kitchen was part of the shop. "It wasn't unusual to see customers having cups of tea in there."
Many customers stopped by every day, even if it was just for a couple of pieces of bologna. Even though toward the shop's closing they had to sell lottery tickets and cigarettes to compete with the rise of the big box store in the early 1980s, the couple were able to sell and retire happily as a cornerstone store on Merrymeeting Road.
The rise of the not-quite-super-yet market
Even though the term "supermarket" first appeared in the shopping vernacular in the United States as early as 1931, it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that St. John's residents would become familiar with shopping carts, express checkout and convenience foods. Spurred on by innovations like freeze-drying, mass production and the TV dinner, gathering food for daily meals was becoming easier than ever, and in St. John's, those stop-and-shops started to pop up everywhere. Stop & Shop locations could be found on Topsail Road, Pennywell and even Mayor Avenue by the 1950s
The Ayre retail dynasty had opened a supermarket at Churchill Square by the early 1960s, when the area was still relatively new, marketed as a "garden suburb." They opened locations in Mount Pearl, Carbonear, Corner Brook and Wabush before selling their supermarket chain to Dominion in 1963.
"My family's business, O'Keefe's Corner at the corner of Springdale and New Gower, was the first supermarket in St. John's; that is, you could take a shopping cart and go up and down the aisles selecting your own groceries instead of going to the main counter," said Cathy Jackman.
She said deliveries were still very important despite the novelty of being able to peruse the canned soup aisle.
"We would also deliver all over St. John's. We had keys to some houses, and we would unpack the groceries, leave them on the kitchen table, put perishables in the fridge and bring the boxes back to the store."
The O'Keefe name was synonymous with stores in the 1960s and 1970s, with at least three other locations run by different family members. But in the early 1970s the 220 New Gower location, along with many other stores on the street, was expropriated for the Pitts Memorial Arterial Road. Bernice Jones remembers working for several New Gower groceries in the 1970s and remembers those demolitions. Jones began working for Arthur Parsons on New Gower at Parsons Grocery Store in 1974.
"I started there making display signs for the windows, but when a job became available for a store helper, I took it because it was full time," recalled Jones, who speaks fondly of her employer.
"His inventory was a lot of bulk foods that needed to be weighed and bagged. I liked doing that. Some of the things were potatoes, walnuts, cherries, sugar, rolled oats, bulk cheese and candies, even salt fish, chicken legs and salt beef."
Price clubs and homogenization
The 1970s saw supermarkets in St. John's shift from locally owned family businesses to corporate chains. Sobeys started its infiltration in the 1970s and by then Ayre's was Dominion, not to mention the arrival of Colemans from Corner Brook. The recession in the 1980s didn't help matters, as small shops struggled to stay afloat, fighting wholesale prices and convenient one-stop-shopping.
By the time the Price Club (now Costco) opened in the Stavanger Drive area in August 1995, many small shops had closed their doors due to a lack of customers, or lack of interest in their children wanting to run them. The family-run grocery store gave way to the convenience store, a spot to grab chips, lotto and beers.
The last (grocery)man standing and the new guard
There are a few shops, however, that have stood the test of time.
Grocery stores like Caines Grocery & Deli at 104 Duckworth Street has been open since 1934, when Stan Caines opened it as a fruit stand and soda shop — a fixture in the downtown and beloved for its fresh baked goods and Jiggs' dinner to go.
Belbin's Grocery (circa 1943), which has served the residents of Quidi Vidi Road for more than 75 years, has maintained its historic feel and community-minded reputation despite being purchased by Colemans in 2018. And let's not forget Breen's, Jackman & Greene and Blackmarsh Superette, which are still offering fresh bread, milk, deli meats, hot meals and local food products.
There is a whole new generation of smaller, independently run grocery stores like Urban Market 1919 on Lemarchant Road, whose offerings include Newfoundland sea salt and fresh pasta. And for the city's size, there is a surprisingly large selection of international grocery stores, like Andaluzia Market on Peet Street, which imports tropical fruit, fresh pita and spices, Tindahan Ni Kuya Brett, which sells Filipino snacks and groceries, and So Kee Grocery on Duckworth Street, which sells trendy Kewpie Japanese mayo and frozen curry leaves.
But the modern interpretations of the grocery store can't restore or replace the dozens and dozens we've lost — just look at the public lamentation when Walsh's on the corner of St. Clare and Mount Pleasant avenues closed after 70 years of business.
The convenience of human connection
As I sifted through all the emails (I'm still receiving them a month later), I became engrossed in the stories of human kindness, and it dawned on me.
The residents of St. John's miss the shopkeepers and their families as much as they miss having easy access to that carton of milk. Maybe more.
Maybe it's not about the shift toward the convenience of one-stop-Costco-shopping, but the shift away from the convenience of human connection.
Maybe people miss the daily chats, the grocer who knows how many pounds of ground beef they need to feed their kids, the generosity of a tab when times are tough.
Couldn't we all use that right now?
Maybe I need to take that 25-minute uphill walk a few days a week and get to know the owners of Urban Market a little better.
The mac and cheese and the neighbourhood relationships are probably equally as comforting.