Big Apple, Small Grocery
Sometimes, the things that I write come back, full circle. So it was after having penned a peice last spring, after a long weekend in the Big Apple. I had written a column that focused on my perception of an absence of grocery shopping opportunities in Manhattan. My focus was the absence of my normal trip to Heinen’s on Saturday morning and the lack of a “supermarket” presence that had led me to an entirely mistaken conclusion about food procurement. My host, Jeff Burney, had read that column and protested, “Really Jeff, we have grocery stores. You buy canned soup, even frozen Stouffer dinners, just like in Lakewood”. My reaction had been, a somewhat dismissive, “Next time I’m there, you’ll have to show me,” after which I forgot the incident. But Mr. Burney, being the astute young Wall Street banker that he is, apparently did not.
Once again this year, my camping compatriots and I made that foray into New York City, once again as the house guests of Jeff Burney (now in his sumptuous midtown apartment). One of the activities for the weekend would dispel my misplaced notions of Manhattan grocery shopping, as we were charged with providing the makings of an evening “thank you” cocktail party. Since Jeff had put up our gallant crew of middle-aged campers at the sacrifice of celebrating Valentine's Day with his charming girlfriend and also discommoded his roommates, catering a little cocktail party for them seemed the least we could do. What I found demonstrated to me how misplaced my original grocery impressions had been. But more than that, what I found in the middle of the city that never sleeps brought back my boyhood memories of the Lakewood of the 60’s.
Before the Super Walmarts, the gigantic Giant Eagles, and other monster grocery stores, we had much smaller, often neighborhood groceries. Even those that were huge for their time paled in comparison to the standard-sized store to which we are accustomed. The Rego Brother’s store on Lakewood Heights is an excellent example of such a store, now abandoned by the mega groceries due to its small footprint. But the stores that I have in mind were even smaller. I’m certain that there were a great many of them, but as a child, the ones I frequented were Sinagra’s at the east end of the strip across from the YMCA, and Pallack’s, where Player’s is now located. These were the places that I visited with my mother on shopping excursions (although frequently Al Pallack came to the house. They delivered in those days). The endless aisles of seemingly endless choices were absent. But there was always what was needed. The meat counter may have lacked the array on display, but no matter, what you wanted would be cut to order. While the selection of bread was limited, we also had a good number of neighborhood bakeries where the aroma of fresh bread wafted out to the street. The dairy counter was small, but most of what we needed was delivered by the milkman. Those great little corner groceries are gone. Instead of a dozen or so stores, Lakewood now has three. I guess we’ve progressed. But, strangely enough, NYC has not. More than likely, spurred by the significant costs of Manhattan real estate, those New Yorkers still have what we have discarded.
In the process of gathering supplies for our New York catering adventure, we stopped at a number of gourmet specialty shops; a cheese shop, a bakery, a sausage shop, and a couple of delis. All were very interesting, but not really grocery stores. I was aware of the existence of these places, and similar places like Balducci’s, but I still hadn’t seen a regular old grocery store. We loaded up on some cheese, breads and sausages but were still in need of some fresh produce, salad dressing, miscellaneous grocery store stuff. Then, we found ourselves at the Gourmet Garage, and I was whisked back to Pallack’s. Or Sinagra’s. Small, even tiny by our standard of a grocery store, and yet everything was there…and then some. Prepared foods, sauces, pickles, soups and oils, a custom meat counter right alongside cans of corn and heads of lettuce. All packed into a space about the size of a Convenient Store (or a Sinagra’s). I found it highly ironic that the cost of Manhattan real estate had resulted in the preservation of the markets which ceased to exist here. It represents an interesting paradox: The largest, most densely populated city in North America has grocery stores that are a throwback to suburban groceries we had in Lakewood fifty years ago. I had traveled to Manhattan to visit the big city, and had found, instead, my small town roots. And I had initially missed the observation on my first visit because I was focused on what our grocery stores had become and, not seeing a mega Super Duper Food Giant, had decided that there was a lack of groceries. I had forgotten the personal service and customer familiarity of our corner stores. And then there was the final irony. These small throwback corner groceries delivered. No doubt Al would be proud.