I took this picture in Herkimer County in upstate NY last fall. A gentleman who seemed to have nothing better to do than watch me said the house was vacant but at one time a small store had once been operated out of the porch.
Probably everyone has had the experience as an adult—of going back to the scenes of youth and being struck with how small the world we knew as a child really was.
Next to my house in the Riverdale section of Rome, NY—a blue-collar neighborhood near the Mohawk River—there was a patch of woods I played in as a kid. The first time I went back as an adult—after being gone a couple of decades—I was surprised and amused at how small that patch of trees and bushes and dangling vines really was.
There were a few other significant areas in my world back in those days—an industrial land fill we always referred to as “the dump”—where us kids could find scrap lumber to build “Forts,” and an abandoned fair grounds with a race track around it where, after many years, a solitary, rusting flag pole stood a lonely watch over several acres of tall, dried grass, scrub trees and windy silence.
But the thing I remember best about that childhood world was Bill’s Store.
The actual name of the mom & pop business was “The Riverdale Market” but everybody called it “Bill’s Store.” It was a cross between an old-fashioned general store and what today would be called a convenience store. Bill and his wife—I can’t remember her name—lived in the building. Their home was in the back and/or upstairs. I don’t think they had any kids.
I seem to remember Mr. and Mrs. Bill—sold meat, canned goods, milk, bread—I can still see white, enamel-covered metal shelves with loaves of “Wonder Bread” on them. But what I remember most clearly was the candy, ice cream and soda.
For kids living in 1950s Riverdale——Bill’s Store was a penny candy, popsicle and soda-pop Mecca:
Mary-Janes, Double-Bubble Gum (with little comics inside,) baseball trading cards (with gum,) strawberry licorice whips, malted milk-balls, Atomic Fire-balls, jaw-breakers, ”Smarties” (little rolls of sugar tablets,) little wax bottles filled with about a tablespoon of sweet flavored water, Tootsie-Rolls, “Chuckles” (sugar-coated jelly-candies in segmented bars,) Chunky Bars, Sky-Bars and oh—let’s not forget candy cigarettes.
Yeah—we’d buy a box of candy cigarettes and stand around outside pretending to smoke them—really looking cool—while sucking on them like suckers. I’m sure they were nothing more than sugar and food-coloring. Believe it or not you can still buy those stupid things—in some places in the world they are flatly illegal. Here’s a couple of links if you want to know more or see what they look like.
I also remember Bonomo Turkish Taffy—hard as rock. You had to hit with a ball-peen hammer or smash it against the curb to break it into jagged pieces which you then sucked on while it got softer. I Googled it a few minutes ago and found out it was neither taffy nor Turkish—it was invented in this country by a man of Jewish extraction. Here’s another link if you want to learn about Bonomo bars:
We could rarely afford the high end stuff. We usually bought popsicles. Back then they were only a nickel and were almost 3 times the size of popsicles today which I think now sell for 8 or 10 dollars apiece—on sale—and the stick costs extra.
We could only occasionally afford the incredibly decadent Eskimo Pie (ten cents and twice the size of today’s) or most delicious of all, the Dreamsicle—an ice cream bar with orange sherbet on the outside and vanilla ice cream on the inside. And of course, full-sized Hershey-bars were the stuff of dreams (these days the size of a large postage stamp—back then you needed a wheel-barrow.)
Any kid coming out of Bill’s with a Dreamsicle or a full-sized Hershey bar was immediately set upon by other kids begging for a bite. It was always wise to check first to see who was hanging around outside before you left the store.
Because there was always that big kid who would ask—in a voice that was somewhere between an entreaty and a threat—for a bite. He’d then just walk away with your confection or stuff as much as he could in his mouth and throw the rest of it down and step on it. If he didn’t then smack you in the back of the head or trip you, you usually felt like you came away pretty good.
Bill’s was about three maybe four city blocks away and for a 10 year old Riverdale kid in 1955 it was more or less the center of the universe. I remember for years Bill talking about retiring and closing the store. We never paid any attention to that heresy. To an elementary school-age Riverdale kid, the idea of Bill’s store being gone was like trying to imagine the sky being gone.
In fact he did eventually close the store and renovate the building to where it was pretty much a regular house that he lived in (I guess) for the rest of his life. But it had that store front porch on it for years.
When did Bill’s Store close? Sometime before I left home in 1963 to go into the army—I think.
Some years later I remember walking by there on my way to work at Revere Copper & Brass one summer while I was in college after the military and—while the original building was still there—it had been further transformed into a regular house.
The last time I was home a few years ago I went back to the old neighborhood—you know—one of those “sentimental journeys” old people are required to make. (After a certain age you have to make at least one a year or the Old Fart Police come after you.)
On my way to Riverdale I stopped a few blocks away at a “Seven-Eleven” and to celebrate the occasion, picked up a Dreamsicle.
The original building was gone—now all you see is just another middle-class home. I parked in the street in front of the old location—no trace there now of what once was. It was a cool, pleasant afternoon, a few kids were playing in the street, traffic was light.
It felt good—if a little melancholy—to stand there leaning against my car, slowly eating my Dreamsicle in that (for me) curious place. Savoring each bite I remembered a long ago, blue-collar kid’s world once centered around this spot. I was able to consume and enjoy the entire ice cream bar. No one begged me for a bite or threw it down in the street.
I was even able to go on my way without getting tripped or slapped in the head.