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East End Grocery’s customers were well known to Johnny Cavanaugh

In the summer of 1960, Johnny Cavanaugh, owner of the corner store on The Commons, hired me for my first summer job. East End Grocery was a long-established business. In fact, my mother remembered it being in operation when she and her family moved from Chuckery Hill to Picton, in the spring of 1919. The small groceteria served the residents of Main Street East, Hill, Broad and Division Streets and even provided a morning and afternoon delivery service.

When I applied for work, I had no real expectation of being hired. I knew nothing about the grocery business and was aware that Johnny already had a full-time clerk, a former classmate of mine named Eileen (Smith) Miller. Much to my surprise, he told me he could use extra help on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and was willing to give me a try. Eagerly, I accepted the job, which paid four dollars a day. On Fridays, quitting time would not be at 6 p.m. I would be required to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no extra money for the three additional hours of time.

Although my mother had often sent me to East End Grocery for a quart of milk or a loaf of bread, I had never observed its interior closely, until the day of my hiring. Johnny had a large stock of penny candy, kept in open cardboard boxes, behind the counter. There were licorice babies at three for a cent, licorice pipes, marshmallow strawberries, licorice whips, jujubes and penny caramels, I quickly discovered that a neighbourhood child with a nickel could take 20 minutes or more to make his or her selection.

In addition to the candy, there were Popsicles and Mello-Rolls – cardboard tubes containing cylinders of vanilla, strawberry or chocolate ice cream. Each had a cardboard cap. While it was child’s play to insert the tube into a cone, peeling the cardboard away from the ice cream was a more challenging task. On several occasions, while fumbling with the tube, I accidentally ejected the ice cream from the cone and watched in dismay as the Mello-Roll missile landed with a soft plop on the floor.

I had not worked at East End Grocery long before I made a startling discovery. There were cockroaches in the backshop. One day, as I picked up an empty cardboard box to pack an order, two of them scurried over its rim. I screamed and Johnny came running to see what was wrong. When I told him, he did not seem unduly concerned. In fact, he observed that I had hollered before I was hurt. He then admitted that he was aware of the roach problem and had was working to bring it under control. He confided that he had located the roaches’ favourite hideouts  in the store. He sprayed, regularly, behind a sheet of foil nailed across the back wall and, also, in the area of a large ceiling fan that hung above the centre aisle.

I gave no more thought to the roaches, until one day, about a week later, when Johnny left me alone behind the counter, while he went to the bank. It was a quiet morning and, as I looked for tasks to fill my time, I spotted a cockroach on the back wall. Remembering that Johnny had shown me the spray he used to dispatch these unwelcome guests, I retrieved it from the backshop and applied it generously through a loose section of the sheet of foil on the rear wall. Satisfied that I had dealt with the problem, I began to fill shelves.

Johnny returned, a few minutes later, just as several customers arrived. I glanced towards the overhead fan, as I was stocking shelves and observed to my horror, a line of cockroaches, marching across the ceiling from the back wall. One by one, they were succumbing to the effects of the spray. They fell from the ceiling in the area of the bread rack, where a neighbourhood housewife was shopping. Fortunately, she was so busy pinching the loaves to determine their freshness that she failed to notice it was raining roaches.

When our customers had departed, Johnny asked if I had been using his special spray. When I confessed to spraying the back wall, his only comment was, “I always do it, after I close up.”

East End Grocery was more than just a convenience store. Many families bought their weekly groceries there, using Johnny’s credit plan. Beneath the counter was a small wooden box, containing approximately 20 bill pads, each bearing the name of a different customer. All purchases were dutifully recorded, along with payments on account. If a family fell on hard times, Johnny continued to extend credit, even if payments were not made on time or at all. His customers were his friends and he placed friendship above money.

Johnny had a heavy weekend trade. When  his full-time clerk Eileen, took a weekend off, a neighbourhood teen, Glenna Dockrill, joined me behind the counter. Glenna and I soon discovered that it was possible to shorten our workday on Fridays. We would wait until Johhny went into the back shop to use the facilities, then one of us would move the hands ahead on the large wall clock above the meat counter. We determined that it was safe to advance the time by 20 minutes.

When it was nine o’clock by the new time, one of us would call out to Johnny that it was quitting time and we were leaving. Invariably, he would call back, “Pay yourselves out of the register”.

Never unduly concerned about profits, Johnny was unaware that a customer, also, had paid himself or herself from his cash register. One day, he received an envelope in the mail, containing $50. and a printed note that read, “I took this money from your store. I am sorry I done it and I am sending it back.” Johnny had never missed it.

His easy-going nature made it impossible for him to say no to all of the neighbourhood children who collected empty pop bottles and brought them to the store for refunds. In the beginning, these empties cluttered the top of the pop coolers, then overflowed outdoors. They became so numerous that Johnny had bins built to contain them, but they were filled, in less than a week, and surplus bottles rolled onto the sidewalk.

Neighbourhood youngsters who had no money for penny candy often borrowed bottles from the bins at the side of the store, rounded the corner to the front entrance and redeemed them for bubblegum, popsicles or potato chips. Glenna and I theorized that some bottles were redeemed two or three times in a single day.

Because it was a neighbourhood corner store, almost all of East End Grocery’s customers were well known to Johnny. I once observed that a woman resident from the east end of town frequently arrived at the store, minutes before a gentleman from another part of town, The pair would engage in animated conversation for several minutes, then leave, at almost the same time. Their good-natured repartee suggested to me that they knew one another well and possibly were related.

One day, I naively asked Johnny what relation Mrs. X was to Mr. Y. He smiled, then replied, “Friendly”.

Theirs was not the only romance that played out at East End Grocery. Another housewife from the east part of town also had a friendly relative. Every Friday night, the twosome would meet near the corner store. The housewife would arrive first and proceed to walk nonchalantly down the street, past Bata Shoe, and back again, gazing at her watch. In a few moments, a car driven by her friendly relation would pull over and pick her up.

A man with a sense of humour, Johnny suggested a devious plan to thwart the romance and I was quick to join him in it. When we spotted the housewife on patrol in front of Bata Shoe, we would hurry outside and take a seat on the lid of one of the bottle bins. Johnny would then call out to the housewife and make a comment about the weather. As long as we remained at our post, she was unable to climb into Romeo’s car, without risking exposure. After two or three encounters with the chatty proprietor of East End Grocery and his clerk, the housewife chose another meeting place for her dates.

For two years, I worked at East End Grocery during the summer months and on weekends. It was one of the happiest times of my life. Then, I used to question Johnny’s business acumen and thought it foolish of him to extend credit to customers who could not pay and turn a blind eye to the theft of his empty pop bottles by children who wanted to buy penny candy. In later years, I realized that he had not been fooled, even for a moment. Johnny Cavanaugh was a big-hearted man whose kindness and generosity brought a smile to many neighbourhood faces. How lucky I was to work for him.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon


About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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  1. Doris Lane says:

    Margaret I remember the East End store fondly. I only wish it was still there. I lived at Green Point so on our way home we always stopped there and got a lot of our groceries. My mother bought meat there too and it was good meat.
    I miss this type of store in our town. There used to be KIngs, Gentiles, The Fair,
    Staffords and probably others whose names I have forgotten. They were all in the main section of main street. There were also a couple of hardware stores so you didn’t have to go all the way to Warings Corners to shop.
    Oh well the good old days

  2. Ann Sherwood says:

    Yes, you certainly were very lucky. I’ve heard stories about Johnny before. I wish I had known him.

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