Bubby’s Grocery Store by Yale Schwartz (version 3.0)
My Bubby, Bessie Klemow, came to
Bubby quickly learned to speak English, at least well enough to run a neighborhood grocery store to help support her family, while Zeyda looked for other ways to generate an income. Can you imagine what it would be like if you moved to Russia and had to rent a store, buy groceries and sell them to people who spoke only Russian and used money you’ve never heard of, like kopeks and rubles?
When Bubby married Zeyda, he promised he would take her to
Bubby’s store was located on a business street in a residential neighborhood. People from homes nearby walked to the store to shop. There were no shopping malls or supermarkets. Bubby handled a wide variety of products, something like a Seven Eleven.
What fun it was to visit Bubby in the store! When I was 10 years old, she taught me how to wait on customers, how to add up their order, and how to make change. The cash register was not electric. It did not perform addition or show how much change to give.
Often, I worked in the front of the store myself while Bubby rested or made lunch for us on a hotplate in the back of the store. The room in the back of the store was another fascination. It had a large oak table and chairs, an étagère Bubby used for her dishes, and a wide dresser with a long, low mirror on top. By the time I came along, Bubby lived with my parents. The furniture in the store came from her house after she broke up with Zeyda.
When business was slow, Bubby and I played cards in the
back. I’d keep score (this was Bubby’s
idea to help me learn math), and I’d win most of the time. I don’t think she was letting me win
either. Sometimes she’d just tell me
stories about what life was like for her in
The imagery I remember best was what winters were like in
Oops, I was supposed to be telling you about the
store. Well, here’s a picture of what
I can remember. There was a large
display window in the front of the store.
On one side Bubby set out an assortment of breads and rolls that came
from a bakery in
And then there was that very long, hot radiator. What a treat to sit on when we had cold
winters! Winters in
Store – the floor plan
In the back, Bubby had a wind-up Victrola. What a neat way to play records. It didn’t use electricity. You’d just wind up the handle on the side to make the 78 rpm records spin. Then, you’d place the needle on the record by hand. To make it louder, you just had to open the doors in the middle. The doors at the bottom are where we keep our record collection. Some of the records were made of cardboard pictures with a waxed coating. I remember one story about “The King who Sneezed” and another about a “Magic Pot” that wouldn’t stop cooking. And, of course, Aunt Shirley’s original version of “The Three Bears.”
And then there was the old upright piano. Oh how I wished I could play. Bubby always let me tinker on it. And once she showed me how to play a song called, “A Mother’s Prayer.” To this day, I think it’s the most beautiful piano piece I’ve ever heard. Bubby only knew the right hand part, the melody. And I’d practice it over and over. Bubby insisted that I use the correct fingering when I played it and she’d correct me when I made a mistake – even if she wasn’t watching. I still don’t know how she did that.
I also learned about salesmanship from Bubby. One day a man came in the store and asked what kind of toilet paper we sold. “We have two kinds,” Bubby said, “fine and coarse.” You can be sure – the customer always bought the more expensive, fine kind.
I got a lot of feedback from family members after publishing
my first version of “Bubby's Grocery Store” and here is the most interesting
fact I learned. When Bubby first
separated from Zeyda, she didn't have the store. To generate an income she started selling
groceries from her home to neighbors in
There are also a few details I’ve updated in the floor plan based on these comments. Of particular note are the following points.
The CHAIR in the front of the store set against the right hand wall next to the radiator. This was the only acceptable place for you to sit and wait for customers. Please don’t sit on the ice cream freezer. “Your touches shouldn’t be in the ice cream.”
A picture of BUBBY’S FATHER hung over the sink, high up on the wall near the ceiling, in an ivory oval frame. And when you were in the back of the store, all by yourself, his eyes followed you wherever you went (like Bubby’s voice in your conscience). His Russian name was Yevyel Aerov. His Hebrew name was Yale. “You are named after my father. He was a great rabbi, a great man. And now, you will be a great man, too.”
Below the picture, on the wall just above the sink was a large piece of yellow oilcloth – “to make it easy to wipe.” This was before the invention of vinyl wallpaper. So, why do I mention this sink? The sink was right outside the makeshift bathroom. You’ll notice that the china closet provides your only privacy while on the toilet. This was not a walled bathroom with ventilation. So, what’s that got to do with the big old porcelain sink? Well, if you did a stinky, Bubby would put a piece of crumpled paper in the sink, sprinkle it with sugar, and light it on fire. How neat - an air freshener!
I could not remember what was between the china closet (étagère) and the cardboard closet. There has been much discussion and disagreement. However, the consensus says it was a COT. In fact, Mom maintains that in the years before I came along, there was a bed in that space and that the three sisters slept together in that bed from time to time.
And finally, my sister Esther reminded me of the world map
that hung on the back wall behind the counter at the back of the front of the
store. This was yet another educational
devise Bubby happened to have available for us.
She showed us where she grew up in
Bubby is the Yiddish word for grandmother. Zeyda is the Yiddish word for grandfather.
Yiddish is a language spoken by Jews in many countries
throughout the world. Yiddish is not the
same as Hebrew, which is the native language of
Pogroms are mob attacks on the property or lives of religious or racial group; these attacks are frequently approved or condoned by authorities.
An étagère is piece of furniture with open shelves for small ornaments.
Touches (n.) Yiddish word for your bottom. As in “The baby's tochus waddled as she took her first steps.”
Copyright © Yale Schwartz, 2009