Remembering Michaels Brothers, Where Everybody Knew Your Name
Pat Torrance looks back on a grocery store that was more of a community gathering place.
Michaels Brothers Grocery Store opened in 1925, when Felix and Barney Michaels purchased the former Esser’s store at the corner of Main and Webster in Montgomery. The two brothers worked side by side until retirement. Felix’s sons, Paul and Gene, continued the tradition until the store closed in 1995.
Felix and his family moved into a large apartment above the grocery store. While the men in the family put in long hours in the store, there was no commute and father was always there in an emergency. The boys worked in the store, following in their father’s footsteps.
The store had a fine reputation, particularly for its butcher shop. Most people wouldn’t buy meat, especially ground beef, anywhere else. Their standards were high. After all, the brothers were members of the “Greatest Generation” and their word was their honor.
At the time the store opened, Montgomery was surrounded by truck farms, and of course most families had a backyard garden and a chicken coop, so the needs for fresh produce were easily filled. But Michaels Brothers also had a good selection of the best local produce and farm fresh eggs that they obtained through bartering.
A trip to the grocery store was often the highlight of a child’s day. It was standard policy to stop by Grandma’s house to see if she needed anything from the store. She was always good for a few pennies, or even an extra nickel sometimes.
When the two men weren’t busy with customers, they were packing orders for delivery. They used one of those very long implements to reach up onto the highest shelf to retrieve cans. How we longed to have one of those ‘reacher/grabbers’ ourselves! The meat department was always busy with grinding, slicing, chopping and pounding, and it was a common sight to see one of the grocers, in a long white apron, sweeping the floor. Endless washing of hands and implements was testimony to the spotless operation they ran.
The candy counter stood facing the front of the store. It seemed huge to a child, filled as it was with an endless variety of mouth-watering treats—and a few items a mother would frown at. Big hunks of bubble gum had a way of migrating to somebody’s hair. Pretend cigarettes and big wax lips weren’t that amusing to Mom and Dad.
For some reason the “Guess What’s” weren’t exactly a big hit with them either? Maybe it was something about the gambling nature of buying the sticky little caramels with hopes of finding a treasure wrapped in with them. Many pennies changed hands looking for the jackpot — a tin pocketknife or “birthstone” ring.
It's safe to say that every child in Montgomery tested the patience of whichever brother stood behind the penny candy counter, as the child struggled to decide between the brightly colored licorice sticks and the chewy caramels. They never seemed to mind.
One of the men, with a soft spot for children, would place the candy in a small brown bag with the same care as for any purchase, and hand it over to the child with a smile and a thank you. The hand-packed ice cream cones were always carefully pressed down so the ice cream wouldn’t fall off the cone, and topped with an extra measure.
A child never felt diminished in that store, and that was one of the reasons they returned as adults again and again over the years.
On Sunday mornings a huge stack of newspapers sat on the floor at the front of the store, and the regulars stopped in for fresh bakery rolls and newspapers on the way home from church. This ritual was as important as Church every Sunday.
A small town grocery store is as homey and welcoming as any place on earth: There everybody knows your name. The smell of freshly ground coffee and fresh bakery, the laughter and the sounds of the cash register mixed with bits of conversation, create an ambience like nothing else in the world.
Wherever a person moved away, they always knew they would be welcomed, probably by name, if they stopped by the grocery store. On Sunday mornings, to stop in for their newspaper and rolls, and a chat with one of the Michaels boys, was a way to keep in touch with the hometown folks and pick up a beef roast or chicken for Sunday dinner.
The village lost more than a grocery store when Michaels Brothers closed. It lost an indefinable something, more than a gathering place, collective memories, or sense of belonging. Perhaps it was some of all three. We never knew what we had until it was gone.