Bubby’s Grocery Store by Yale Schwartz (version 3.0)



My Bubby, Bessie Klemow, came to America when she was 18 years old.  She fled from Russia in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms that were becoming more frequent.  Bubby settled in Hazleton – a small town in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.


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 America and send her to college.  Instead, Bubby had four children and raised two children from Zeyda’s previous marriage.  Somehow she managed and at some point she separated from Zeyda and raised her children by herself, just with the income from her neighborhood grocery store.


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 Russia when she was just a young girl.  Sometimes she told me fairy tales that she made up on the spot.  Bubby always told great stories – whether they were about real life or make believe. Her stories were always more vivid, more scrumptious, more scary, and more wonderful than anything I’d ever seen or imagined.


The imagery I remember best was what winters were like in Russia.  Bubby described walking through the snow and listening to the “chrunch, chrunch - the way the snow makes the sound under your feet,” or seeing the trees covered with ice, “they sparkled like diamonds, so bright you had to squish your eyes just to look at them.”  Years later when I saw the movie, Doctor Zhivago, I understood what Bubby was talking about.





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 New York.  Hers was the only store in town that carried these breads.  There was pumpernickel, challah with raisins, rye bread, and keiser rolls.  On the other side of the window she had penny candies.  Can you imagine buying candy for a penny?


And then there was that very long, hot radiator.  What a treat to sit on when we had cold winters!  Winters in Hazleton were a close rival to those in Russia.  And how handy that radiator was when the town had a parade!  Of course, our first choice was sitting outside on pretzel cans – right at the curb so we had the best view.  And when they beat the big bass drum, it hit you right in your heart.  But if the weather got too cold, we’d come in the store and stand on that glorious radiator.  Not only could we see over the people standing outside, but the radiator warmed our feet at the same time.




Bubby’s Grocery Store – the floor plan
Version 3.0




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.






Additional Notes


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 West Hazleton.  Some time later Alice, the oldest daughter, married Eli.  Eli's family owned a bakery and he sold their baked goods in a small store in Hazleton.  To help Bubby's family, Eli started a truck route selling baked goods over a wider area and gave Bubby the store.  Over time Bubby transformed the small bakery store into the full-fledged grocery store, as I’ve described it.


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 Kiev, Russia.  Then we tried to find Hazleton, but I guess in terms of the World Map, Hazleton was too unimportant.  But I remember Philadelphia was listed and it was great pretending we were driving there to visit our cousins.  Of course, we’d pretend to make up CARE packages (food for poor starving families) just like Bubby took along for our Philadelphia relatives.  No they weren’t starving, but we always kidded Bubby because of the amount of food Bubby felt she had to take to them.  “After all, they don’t live so close.”  This was Bubby’s way of helping even though her children were grown adults with their own families.  But again I digress.  The map – Esther and I used to play a search and find it game, not based on geography, just endurance.  One person finds a name of a place anywhere on the world map and tells the other to find it.  Good, cheap, clean and almost educational fun.






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 Israel.


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