Vintage Rye: An Ode to Rye’s Great Grocers

To paraphrase General MacArthur’s famous retirement quote: “Old grocers never die, they just fade away.” And that is exactly what has become the fate of Rye’s many long-gone grocers.

B21 Grand Union
Published May 2, 2013 9:02 PM
5 min read

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B21 Grand UnionTo paraphrase General MacArthur’s famous retirement quote: “Old grocers never die, they just fade away.” And that is exactly what has become the fate of Rye’s many long-gone grocers.

 

By Karen T. Butler

 

B21 Grand UnionTo paraphrase General MacArthur’s famous retirement quote: “Old grocers never die, they just fade away.” And that is exactly what has become the fate of Rye’s many long-gone grocers.

 

But there was a time in the ’40s and ’50s, before most of you were born, when Purchase Street was lined with grocery stores. It was simultaneously home to Safeway, Grand Union, Gristedes Bros., A&P, and the Rye Market. This last one catered to the “carriage trade” and was where chauffer-driven maids went to shop. Amazingly, all those stores were within two and half short blocks of each other.

 

The Safeway on the southeastern end of Purchase Street encompassed what today is both Weezie D. Ladies’ Boutique and Nest Inspired Home. The Grand Union was on the corner of Smith and Purchase, where TD Bank’s new building is now. Further north on Purchase Street, Webster Bank was Gristedes, later to become Butler Bros./Rye Village Market.

 

Across the street, the entire Rye Mall building, which includes HSBC, was an A&P. I still have that A&P’s red coffee grinder that ground thousands of pounds of A&P coffee for Rye-ites. I can still smell the wonderful aroma of fresh-ground Eight O’Clock coffee.

 

Back then, most women were homemakers, cooking meals daily as well as making frequent trips to the grocer. Children carried a lunch box to school complete with a thermos of milk. Dining in a restaurant was a special treat; not something folks could afford to do very often. Sunday dinner, usually a roast or something special, with the whole family gathered together in the dining room for food and fun, was an unspoken tradition.           

 

I became a grocer not by birth, but by default due to the untimely passing of my husband, Marty Butler, who in the late 1960s founded and created Butler Bros. I think I can speak about grocers because I spent a lot of time with them.

 

B21 Marty ButlerI came to the helm of Butler Bros. knowing absolutely nothing, and I emphasize nothing, about the grocery business. I only knew what I liked to buy as a customer, so that’s how I approached my newfound career. One of the butchers used to tease me, saying: “How are you doing, Chief?” The fact that it wasn’t entirely a compliment kept me humble. Chief I was, and my employees had to teach me everything they knew for us to succeed and remain in business. And they did — about the grocery business, and, in turn, valuable lessons about life.

 

Everyone grocer I ever knew loved his (they were mostly guys) job. If they didn’t, they quit. They loved to work hard, physically hard. They were a happy bunch. No matter what the weather, or season, they enthusiastically came to work. Sick days — what were they? They retired only if they absolutely had to.

 

In the wee hours of the morning they were there to unload the tractor-trailers full of groceries with gusto. One fellow, Jack, who had retired from Grand Union, unloaded cases of groceries, tossing them off the 16-wheeler to the guys waiting on the street below, chattering as he worked. Harold manned the phones, taking your order, boxing it, and later delivering it to your home. If you weren’t home, he put your “perishables” in your refrigerator in your unlocked home.

 

During a blizzard, we often stayed open. When our delivery truck couldn’t get through the snow, the Rye Police would deliver food to elderly folks in need.  Some of you still remember Phil, in addition to Joe, Sam, Bob, John, and many others.

 

There were times when Phil walked to work from his home off Ridge Street in Port Chester, because he knew the store needed to be open. Open it was. It never closed, except for the day we buried Marty Butler. Naturally, his wish was that we keep it open that day too. We didn’t adhere to his wish.

 

Phil was the quintessential grocer. He had the knack of waiting on the customer, across the counter, as if you were his favorite customer of all time. He gave the air of really caring, and care he did. The same could be said of the others as well as the hundreds of Rye teenagers whose first part-time job was being a grocer.   

 

I have often thought that it takes as much instinct to be a great grocer as it does to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. I quickly learned that the grocery business looks simple but isn’t. There is an art to being good at it. The difference Every little detail counts: presentation, rotating food, lining up cans on a shelf to be appealing, and most important, graciously waiting on customers. Any great grocer has these built deep into the psyche after years of working experience.  

 

At lunchtime, they sat on empty milk cartons eating a sandwich as they read the New York Post or the Daily News bantering back and forth about sports and the events of the day. As I listened to them over the years, I realized their wisdom was sound without frills…what I like to call “grassroots America.” Not a bad thing to be.

 

Coming to work one morning I learned that a “deli man” working a few doors down on Purchase Street had dropped dead behind the counter. I expressed my sadness about that to my employee, Charlie, who responded: “It was a deli man’s dream; he died doing what he loved.”

 

Grocers were the bedrock of the Rye community. I remember folks asking: “I want to sell my house; what realtor do you recommend?” Or even, “I want to divorce my husband: what lawyer do you suggest?” Hey, we were grocers; were we supposed to have the answer to all those questions? In that different world, they trusted their grocer to lead them in the right direction and always be there for them.

 

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