CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
Memories of North 27th Street in the Late 1940s and Early 1950s
by Elaine Sooy Goodman
Elaine Sooy Goodman grew up at North 29th Street and Concord Avenue. Nine years old in September of 1949, she is presently writing a book about the impact of the Unruh murders on what was a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. She would like to get in touch with others who remember that day and how it affected them or their loved ones. Please e-mail me so I can forward your contact information to Elaine.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, 27th Street was a thriving shopping district. Most of the shops were operated by husband and wife teams who lived in apartments above their businesses. All ethnic groups were represented. Some were Jews who had fled persecution in Europe or Russia. Each store had its own distinctive odor and atmosphere.
There were four soda fountains in the two blocks between River Road and Hayes Avenue, all of which made a good living for the owners. Each had its own clientele. Kelso’s Drug Store sold patent medicines along with prescription drugs. The chatty young man in a soda jerk hat behind the gleaming wooden soda fountain bar served milkshakes and ice cream sodas to the young fathers who hung out there. In warm weather the crowd moved to the corner outside, smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze after work or on weekends. Wells Fountain at 27th and Hayes Avenue sold candy, pretzels, Tastykakes, pickles, potato chips and chewing gum to the students at Veterans Memorial Junior High School, just around the corner. Teenagers congregated there to have a lemon-lime soda or double-decker ice cream cone and play the pinball machine. Many adolescents attributed pimples blooming across their cheeks to Wellsie’s rich chocolate milkshakes. Take-A-Boost, a dark and often empty shop, sold a soft drink that looked like root beer but had a fruity flavor. The store was operated by a mysterious mother and daughter pair who seldom spoke. Both wore dark overcoats and they always seemed to be together. The daughter bore a large port wine stain birthmark across her face. Koerner’s Bakery, complete with polished wooden booths, sold Breyer’s Ice Cream and fresh baked bread, cakes, éclairs, cream donuts, jelly donuts, cookies and candy. Mr. Koerner, in his clean white apron, was our main source for those little wax cigarettes that contained colored syrup and for the Sen Sen our fathers used to mask their breath after a binge. All of them sold cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco.
The neighborhood dentist occupied an office over Kelso’s Drug Store. The absence of any equipment for cleaning, drilling or filling indicated that his skill leaned toward pulling teeth that were causing a problem. It was common for young adults in the neighborhood to sport a full set of false teeth by the time they reached forty. My mother’s teeth were gone by the time she was thirty-three.
Across the street from the dentist there was a disreputable little candy store run by a man named Dutch. Once or twice a week it was my task to carry a couple of coins or dollars to Dutch’s to play the numbers for my father. Calling it a candy store is, of course, a misnomer. There were a couple of dingy glass cases with a few dusty old candy bars scattered about. Everyone knew Dutch was mainly a bookie.
Mr. Liebert operated Liebert’s Fish Store Thursdays through Sundays, wearing a blood stained dingy white apron. His thick body was topped by a large head that sat directly on his shoulders, his lower jaw slouching forward. He had no visible neck but a wide mouth and fleshy lips that to my nine year old eyes resembled the black and white photograph of a giant grouper in my “American Wildlife” book. Whole fish lay glistening on bins of ice. Mr. Liebert cut them to order. Whenever he could, Grandfather Frenzel collected fish offal from the store to fertilize his garden.
Next door to the fish store was a produce store called Fresh Fruit [aka Central Market - PMC]. The odor of fresh and not so fresh fruit permeated the walls and the creaking wood floor. The fruit and vegetables were offered in large flat boxes, each piece wrapped in colored tissue, purchased one by one and taken home in a small brown bag. Few people had refrigerators, so most food had to be purchased daily, especially in the summer.
The Well Baby Clinic operated out of a brick building. Helen Rudolph, R.N. cared for most of the babies and small children in the neighborhood.
There were three hardware stores on 27th Street between River Road and Hayes Avenue, less than 100 yards from each other, each specializing in something. Poznack’s Hardware sold pots and pans, housewares, can openers, etc. Meeks’ Hardware sold fishing tackle, baseballs, bicycles, ice skates, roller skates, badminton sets and other sporting goods. If you needed a ladder, nails, nuts, bolts, screws, glass, tools, hammers, garden implements, lawn mowers or a broom, Mike’s Hardware was the best place to look.
Mr. Raletz operated the shoe repair shop on the corner of Concord Avenue and 27th Street. I used to love going there, taking my father’s shoes to have “half soles and heels” applied. The heady odor of shoe polish and the whir of the wheels Mr. Raletz used to finish his work and shine the shoes was a source of fascination to a small child.
Mr. and Mrs. Ginsberg operated one of the two dry cleaning shops. A kindly couple, the Ginsbergs were Orthodox Jews. Mrs. Ginsberg maintained a kosher kitchen upstairs. Tall and lanky, Mr. Ginsberg rarely spoke as he leaned over the steaming ironing board, behind a fog that smelled of starch and cleaning fluid. Mrs. Ginsberg, short and round like a little fireplug, was lively and personable in her gingham dress, moving quickly like a bird to effortlessly find your clothes amid the confusion of garments on wire hangers that provided a backdrop behind the counter. With their modest little dry cleaning shop, the Ginsbergs sent their children through college. It seemed a miracle to me. I knew no one who had gone to college. The other dry cleaner was Berge Yardumian, brother of renowned composer Richard Yardumian who attended the famous Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and wrote beautiful music, much of it religious.
Soloff’s was the dry goods store. Socks, nylons, long underwear, panties, aprons, blouses, head scarves, shirts, jeans, handkerchiefs and ties were stocked on shelves from the creaking wood floor to the pressed tin ceiling. Thousands of items crammed a store that couldn’t have been more than 12 feet wide by 20 feet deep.
Irving Steifel’s Flower Shop created modest bouquets for life’s milestones and lavish arrangements for grand finales, most often for saying goodbye to the many grandparents who had traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to raise their families in Cramer Hill. Mr. Stiefel also made sure fresh flowers decorated the Veterans Memorial in the park on 27th Street east of Hayes Avenue every day.
Kooker’s, a mom and pop card store operated around the corner on River Road just south of 27th Street next to Binkley’s 5 and 10. Giggling sixth grade girls bought their first lipsticks at Binkley’s, comparing the effect of orange versus deep red and worrying about whether or not they would ever need a bra.
The American Store on the corner of 27th Street and River Road was our main source of fresh meat, poultry, coffee, tea, flour, corn meal, potatoes and other basic provisions. Several butchers wearing blood stained aprons cut your meat to order on a wooden block. Coffee was ground while you waited. Large barrels contained pickles, crackers, oats, corn meal, flour or beans and a clerk scooped what you needed into a bag to be weighed and carried home.
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