DO YOU RECALL a mom-and-pop grocery from your younger years, perhaps a favorite where you actually shopped?
For my grade-school friends and me on Mercer Island, that store was Bill Muncey’s Roostertail, owned by the hydroplane hero and nestled in the Shorewood apartments. The store provided no sustenance for our family dinner table. Rather, it was a measure of our maturity when our moms let us ride our bikes that far from home. Our bounty was 5-cent packs of baseball cards. (I threw away the cardboard-tasting gum.)
The point is that a mom-and-pop evokes stories, and such stores — and stories — once dotted our cityscape. At the dawn of the Roaring ’20s, when our “Then” image was taken, Polk directories indicate that Seattle had nearly 1,000 identifiable grocers — one for every 315 residents.
This store, August Engel’s Grocery, specializing in dry goods, fronted a private streetcar line running from downtown to Ballard, at the northwest corner of First Avenue West and West Republican Street in Lower Queen Anne.
Bellingham paralegal Hugh Engelhoff is Engel’s great-great-grandson. When he submitted this photo for “Now & Then” consideration, a century-old story came along for the ride.
As family lore has it, August, a German immigrant who operated the store until his death in 1921 at age 73, also ran a grocery “down the street.”
“Whenever he had dissatisfied customers,” Hugh says, “he would tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, you can take your business elsewhere,’ and would direct them to his other store down the street.”
The photo hints at other aspects of the enterprise. A sign facing Republican Street promotes Olympic flour, cereal and feed from Northwest mills. Window lettering (“MJB Coffee WHY?”) reflects the coffee maker’s intriguing national slogan. Sears & Roebuck Co. touts itself on the front bench, while banners announce a temporary move to precede a building project.
Keen insights on mom-and-pops derive from detailed articles by archivist Alicia Arter and Jan Hadley, board members of the Queen Anne Historical Society. Their interviews with store-owner families and ex-delivery boys affirm that neighbors patronized a store because of its mix of products, gossip and the grocer’s personality. Also popular were stores that offered credit and were near a butcher or bakery.
Mom-and-pops began to dissipate in the 1930s. The culprits? Depression-induced business failures, plus the onset of electric refrigeration, which brought larger stores with lower prices and longer hours. Another factor — no surprise — was society’s deepening love affair with the convenience of cars, diminishing proximity as a top reason for where to shop.
Scattered mom-and-pop grocery stores still survive in Seattle. But reflecting our bigger-is-better modern mentality, across the street from the former Engel’s Grocery now stands a mega-Safeway.