The automobile has utterly transformed how we live and die, in ways big and small, for better and worse. But it wasn’t until we moved to Galveston that I realized it also killed the traditional grocery store.
Walk four blocks in Galveston’s oldest residential neighborhoods and you’ll probably encounter a structure unlike the others. Usually, it’s at an intersection. It sits much closer to the street than its neighbors, and the front door is at a 45-degree angle to the intersection.
It lacks a front porch, a fixture of virtually all houses built before 1940, another casualty of the car. In its place is a long awning that extends over the sidewalk. The structure appears more utilitarian than the others; it lacks the frilly architectural details that decorate even the most modest of Galveston’s old houses.
Today, it’s most likely a home or a set of small apartments. A century ago, it was a grocery store.
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, everyone bought groceries at a corner store. Stores had to be within walking or bicycling distance of a household, so they were plentiful. According to the 1890 census, there were 233 grocers and grocery stores in Galveston, one for every 25 households.
Since refrigerators didn’t become common in the United States until the 1930s, most residents visited the store several times a week. The store was the neighborhood hangout, more like a local bar than a contemporary Kroger’s. In fact, many of the stores had a bar attached.
Corner stores were a city’s most-trafficked public spaces. People sat and talked under the awnings, protected from sun and rain. Neighbors spent time with neighbors there, much more often than they did in churches, synagogues, or ballparks.
Most of the stores’ owners lived upstairs. Sometimes they put their kitchen and dining room downstairs, connected to the store by a door that was often open, so they could keep an eye on shoppers while they ate. Grocers and their family members worked long hours, 5am to 8pm typically, seven days a week.
What have Kroger’s, refrigeration, and the automobile given us? Choices, mostly. Our ancestors would have been flummoxed by the range of food and drink available to even the poor. They would have been astonished that we could buy a steak and eat it a year later. They would have been stunned by our ability to go from the East End of Galveston to downtown Houston in less than an hour. I don’t imagine that many of us would turn back the clock. I doubt I would.
But obviously, we’ve lost some things, too, and right now, in this time and in this fractious and fractured country, those things seem to outweigh what we’ve gained.
We’ve lost regular and unavoidable contact with our neighbors. We don’t need to meet them anymore. We can stay inside our four walls, order everything online, and interact virtually with whomever we like, whether we know them or not, and now, whether they’re actual people or not.
Corner stores required residents to interact with the store’s owners. Residents knew the people who sold them stuff, whose livelihoods depended on their purchases. If the consumers appreciated what the merchants carried, they could tell them. The same was true if they had complaints or requests. Consumers had a direct line to sellers, and the sellers knew their needs firsthand. No surveys necessary.
The lack of a car and the necessity of a corner store brought neighbors together, whether they liked it or not. The store was a glue. What it glued was a community.