An institution of 1950’s culture was the corner store. It was a predecessor to the modern day convenience store and somewhat similar to the urban bodega.
The corner store invariably had a counter up front with the cash register where they sold cigarettes, candy and small items like batteries or film. An important stock item during my childhood was baseball cards. There would be a soda fountain/lunch counter that usually served sandwiches, often hamburgers and grilled cheese, ice cream and fountain drinks, the most popular of which was the egg cream.
There would also be a full magazine and newspaper rack and shelving units that would include stationary, toys and greeting cards. The stationary was probably on a shelving unit that would be six feet wide with about four levels. Yet I can’t ever remember going to get something and having it not be there. Can’t say that about Staples.
The toys would always include small items which were standard gear for us like a yoyo and the small pink rubber balls that we used to play handball against a school wall. Another popular item was plastic models of cars and airplanes. You could buy the glue off the shelf then too since we used it to hold the pieces of the models together rather than to get high.
There were miscellaneous random items too numerous to mention but basically you could go to the corner store for just about anything other than furniture or groceries.
These types of stores still exist but there are probably only about 10 or 20 percent of the number there were in the 50’s. Most have fallen victim to the onslaught of Wal-Mart, Staples, strip malls and megamalls.
In the immediate neighborhood where I grew up, say a six-block radius, there were three corner stores. They were all literally mom and pops. Sometimes it almost felt like the proprietors were our moms and pops because the men and women behind the counter were not just selling us baseball cards, they were our neighborhood watch, our babysitters and supplemental educators. Each was a hangout for mostly elementary and middle school kids with each store attracting its own click. No one ever chased us away.
I remember two stories that demonstrate the role that these stores and the men and women who ran them played for neighborhood children.
One of the corner stores I visited was Balkan’s. Mrs. Balkan worked there and I believe was the only one who ever worked there. One day I walked to Balkan’s to buy a newspaper. Unbeknownst to me it was during a New York newspaper strike so instead of having 10 or so newspapers on the rack in front of the store there was only a couple. I picked one up, walked into the store and made some flippant childish comment about how there weren’t many choices today. Mrs. Balkan sat me on a stool at the lunch counter and explained the strike to me. She then told me that the Herald-Tribune, which was the paper still being published, was a fine newspaper that I should be happy with.
There was another corner store, the name of which I can’t remember, that was closer to my grammar school and thus was where I gravitated to during school lunches and after school. Once a week my mom would let me buy lunch there. The standard was a hamburger and a chocolate egg cream. One day, without thinking, I walked out without paying. I was probably in third or fourth grade at the time and upon realizing it later in the day I was horrified. So I spent an anxious night at home worrying about my crime before I could get over there and pay the next day. When I arrived with the money and a lump in my stomach, I started to explain but the woman who ran the store cut me off and said, “I know. But I also knew you would come back with the money.”