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Best Man in a Bad Business
A Memory of a Grocer: 5/23/22
© 2022 James LaFond
Some of his employees called him Carl, some Mister Carl, some Mister Greely. He was the owner of a small supermarket in Middle River Maryland from before I was born. Yesterday a reader, texted me today his obituary even as my mother showed me the Sun Paper article. This article did note that he was “The Shrimp King” that he knew the seafood people personally and always got first pick of their freight.
Carl and his daughters employed families, had married couples and parents and children and brothers and sisters working for them. No other supermarket allowed this that I knew of. In retail food employees are regarded as thieves first and partners second. Carl, for his kindness, suffered no more theft than other grocers.
In my mind’s eye, Carl looms as a kind, tall, hawkish man, one of the few upper management persons to ever shake my hand as a lowly clerk on the sales floor. Carl once picked me up and gave me a ride to a bus stop I was walking to, noting one of his employees walking along the road. He had no idea as to my name and asked me, “Who else do you work for?” with a soft smile that admitted his company policy of paying low wages in return for better working conditions and family hiring policies. [1] His second man and General Manager, John Zigline, then made it his business, after hiring me twice to work at two of his stores, to drive me between stores when he delivered the ad copy and gathered the sales figures.
Carl stayed in a business that ate almost all of the smaller grocery operators. He floated between 1 and 4 stores for 69 years, after mortgaging his house to buy the first small grocer. He didn’t change its name or identity and insisted on keeping it a neighborhood store with homemade food. I recall being impressed with how down to earth and easy going his grandson was, who inherited his easy manner and ability to get along with the staff at the bottom of the business, which is something that most retail food operators lacked, that ability to respect the lowest operator in their outfit.
Every Thanksgiving morning Carl and his family gave away 200 pumpkin pies at 6 A.M., and, they permitted, at least until my exit in 2017, local men to play football on the parking lot before standing in line for their pies. Carl and John were the only big wigs to ever shake my hand in 38 years in the business, other than Jim Street, who found out I was working for Carl again and had me consult on the opening of his son’s store. It is of a certain morbid interest to this cynic that these rare family operators are still in business and that the largely anti-family chains that employed so many of the same people, have, as Carl’s Grocery Manager, Larry would say, “gone the way of the condor.”
Carl dressed up to go to work, and, in his white shirt and tie, did not treat the clerks in their polo shirts or even the sleeveless-shirted night crew left over sometimes at opening time, like we were any less human for our low economic station.
1. This makes him a bad guy in the jealous eyes of prolish America. But the other companies I worked for that paid higher wages, union and non-union, where mostly hell holes of negation, because the manager’s main job was to limit staff, cut hours, delete hours worked from the payroll record, lay-off, fire and demand ever more work for the same money. Retail food is the bottom industry in Modernity, awash as we are in food, which is now a vehicle for branding rather than nutrition. The policies that dominated the business for my whole life was higher wages for fewer people, always treated as the enemy by management, doing ever more work as they get older, which made for a very bitter workplace. Carl’s policy maintained grocery clerking as a viable job for high school and college students.
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