Advertising banner tacked to the wall beside a Maxway store on North Churton Street in Hillsborough North Carolina. An aluminum-clad covered walkway protects the sign, and shoppers, from the elements. The white wall, sign and concrete below are a soothing shade of orange and pink, compliments of the evening sun.
The sign, proclaiming what marketers term a “call to action,” implores you to “layaway now!” Proving what’s old is new again. Layaway was as extinct as the bison. With a credit card in hand, who needed to pay a few weeks or months on an object of desire, when you could have it now? But that instant pudding way of shopping seems dead for the moment. Layaway is back.
The building at the southeast corner of Churton Street and Highway 70 housing the current Maxway store may be the first commercial building of the 1960’s “strip mall” variety erected in Hillsborough. It was certainly the only one in town when I first remember going to the grocery store with my mother, in the mid 1970’s. The strip mall here featured an A&P grocery store as the anchor tenant, with a Rexall drug store just to its right, and a Kodak drive-thru kiosk in the parking lot.
Though no one in Hillsborough probably realized it at the time the A&P supermarket was built in town in the late 1960’s, A&P was the nation’s first dominant grocery retailer. The company, which started in 1859 as “The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company,” was the first grocer to implement standardized store layouts, buy in large volume, and own the suppliers of the items on its shelves; all in a bid to lower prices. The innovations helped A&P become the largest grocer in the United States for the first three quarters of the 20th century. A&P boasted just shy of 14,000 stores in 1925, and by the 1950’s could claim 75% market share of groceries sold in North America. In the 1950’s and 1960’s older stores were replaced in the new “supermarket” or “superette” store design to appeal to suburban shoppers, all in a colonial-themed motif above the store, with iron railing and a cupola, set at an angle in the middle of the building’s facade.
Congress threatened the supermarket chain with anti-trust and anti-predatory pricing legislation in the 1950’s. Though it was never necessary, as with any corporation in the Capitalist financial system, it suffered from its own largess. A&P is a substantially smaller regional grocery store chain today, concentrated in New York and surrounding New England states.
The particular A&P store in Hilsborough is the first recollection I have of visiting a commercial building; a store. And the A&P sign the first logo I have memory of. The Eight O’clock coffee, an A&P in-house brand, the first packaging I can remember in my parent’s house.
I also remember the inside of the store, as if its blueprint were seared into my brain’s memory. Not because of my fascination with grocery store interiors, but because when a distinct memory occurs in a particular place, your mind has the ability to remember details of that place. And, in the meat department area of this A&P store I learned one of my first life lessons.
I was 3 or 4 at the time, young enough that my mother was the center of my universe, but getting to the age where I wanted to try independence too. I no longer wanted to sit in the front of the shopping cart, I wanted to ride below, where you stow beer or dog food as you roam the aisles. This was fine by my mom. What she did not care for was the fact I also liked to get out from under the shopping cart and try to hold onto the sides of the cart, as if holding on for dear life on the side of a runaway train.
My mom, possibly the sweetest person on earth, patiently requested I stop doing this, on repeated trips to the grocery store. This day, I was already trying it in the fruit and vegetable aisle, that first wide aisle you enter in the store. I wasn’t listening. She then tried what I now try with my kids, explaining “why not.” That I was going to turn the shopping cart over, on myself, and was going to get hurt.
But, I was young, and not listening, and as we made that first turn, into the cold case that houses bacon and lunch meat and hot dogs, I got the bright idea to try to move the cart myself, while holding onto the sides. This was just the momentum needed to topple the cart onto myself.
The next thing I know a shopping cart is laying on its side, on top of me, and cabbage and squash and apples are everywhere, all over the floor. My reaction to the pain and embarrassment and unknown was what every 3 year old does, I cried, at the top of my lungs.
I recollect being so scared, not knowing how to fix this mess I had gotten myself into. After the initial shock, a soothing feeling entered my thoughts. That my mother would be along shortly, to swoop me up in her arms, and hug me, and tell me everything was going to be alright.
My mother picked me up, and for a second, held me close, a way to make sure I had not broken any bones. Then she flipped me over and popped my behind. Just once. But, once was all that was needed to get my attention. I had not listened, had made a mess. She was not going to be able to fix all my mistakes, to make it all go away. I needed to start answering for what I did wrong.
Not the last life lesson my mom taught me, but the last at the A&P. Five or so years later this store was gone, and we shopped at the Food Town and Byrd’s and the Red and White; none of which exist today.