Roland “Joe” Josephson operated one of the most commonplaces of all businesses in the 1950s — a neighborhood grocery store.
Now among a dwindling number of people who were part of this unique time in history, Josephson looks back upon the period with nostalgia, sadness and even a bit of relief.
As a lifelong Elginite, Josephson enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. A few years after his discharge he and a friend, Ed Gould, bought the former Rudy Draught Grocery store on Hill Avenue, near Franklin Street, on Elgin’s east side.
Their store was one of more than 70 such stores operating in Elgin at the time. These included Fredricksen’s, Gaede’s and Greenberg’s on the east of the river, and Burstein’s, Bohne’s and Gaspers on the west side.
Larger in size than some, the partners’ building also housed a small butcher store and barber shop. Like its counterparts, it was open seven day a weeks. Weekday hours stretched from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Many of owners of these “mom and pop” stores — so named because they were managed by a husband and wife team — lived in an upstairs apartment. In Gould’s and Josephson’s case, they chose to rent the area out to someone else and reside with their families in somewhat larger quarters a short distance away.
This didn’t mean they weren’t on duty. Calls inevitably came in from a customer who had forgotten an ingredient for their Sunday dinner or bread or milk. In an era in which patrons were just as much friends as customers, customers short on cash were simply told, “You can pay the next time you’re in the store.”
It was a very different time, notes Josephson, who said he got eggs from a local farm and candled them himself.
“We also drove to Chicago twice a week to buy our produce.”
People that couldn’t make it into the store had no problem either.
“We delivered twice a day,” he explained.
As part of the fabric of the neighborhood, Josephson said he’d send pencils and suckers to the students at Sheridan Elementary School at Christmas time. Children would come into the store to pick up something for their parents’ dinner and he delighted in seeing them buy candy with leftover pennies.
When there was a death in a family, Josephson would send the gift of a ham to the home.
Josephson said he and Gould prospered, quadrupling their sales in the first four years. To accommodate their growing business, they removed a wall to the adjacent store and expanded their floor space.
But, the good old days weren’t always as good as we think, observed Josephson, who said an employee was stealing from him.
“I had quite a few peep holes around the store so I was finally able to catch her,” he smiled.
While their years in business saw many price changes, one of them wasn’t milk, notes Josephson.
“I think it was about 39 cents for most of the time I was in business,” he chuckled. “You could also buy much more for your money. If you spent $20 on groceries, you had a lot.”
Josephson decided to venture out on his own in the early 1960s and purchased the former Kuestner’s Grocery Store on Prospect Street, near McKinley School, in the 1960s.
“I wanted to have my own business,” he said.
But the era of “mom and pop” stores was beginning to wind down as more and more people owned cars and supermarkets became the preferred place to shop.
In Elgin, the number of “mom and pop” stores dropped from more than 70 in 1950 to less than a dozen three decades later.
While some viewed the evolution through nostalgic eyes, Josephson saw it as an inevitable change — not to be looked upon with any great sadness.
“I got a job with the post office and moved onto another phase in my life,” he said.
For others, like Josephson’s daughter, Rita Josephson Yaeger, who is now a nurse and who helped her father cut meat, stock shelves and deliver groceries, the closing meant much more.
“Our store was a place for neighbors to meet each day and people to receive personal attention unmatched in the business world today. You just don’t find many businesses like the neighborhood grocery stores anymore,” she said.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.