Sunday, June 24, 2018

closing time

For our second date, the future Mrs. Pincus took me to her parent's store in the rural town of Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. Gilbertsville was a place that time had forgotten. Just an hour west of Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the country, Gilbertsville was a tiny farming community inhabited by characters from a John Steinbeck novel — folks that can only be accurately described as "salt of the earth." The men were weathered and grizzled, with far less than the standard adult issue of teeth. Most were clad in well-worn overalls caked with and stinking of farm animal excrement. The womenfolk were meek and reserved, dressed as though they were the stand-by female model for Grant Wood's "American Gothic." And, for some reason, they cowered behind their spouses. This was 1982 and when these people said they were headed to "The City," they meant Reading, Pennsylvania. They'd never set foot in Philadelphia. You could get murdered there.

This populace comprised the customer base of my future in-law's store — an amalgam of hardware, housewares, novelty items and anything on which my father-in-law thought he could turn a quick profit. The store was one of many that occupied Zern's Farmer's Market, a weekend-only commerce center that was a regular gathering place for the aforementioned locals for almost a century. Alongside the store was an array of vendors that offered fresh produce (well, fresh at least until early evening on Saturday), unusual configurations of processed meat identified on hand-written signs by angry-sounding Teutonic names, prepared food (like the popular chicken gizzards in a Styrofoam cup of, what appeared to be, motor oil), as well as sturdy, double-stitched clothing suitable for plowing the fields and a wide assortment of antiques, curios, collectibles and what-nots. But Zern's was more than just a place to buy things. It was a social outing, along the lines of a square dance or a barn raising. (I'll have you know that I refrained from saying "cross burning" as a second example, so I'm pretty proud of myself.)

Mr. and Mrs. Hardware
in their natural habitat.
How am I so intimately familiar with Zern's Farmer's Market? Well, by my third date with Mrs. P, I was working there. That's right. This naive kid from Northeast Philadelphia, who got lost outside of the comfortable boundaries of the city limits was now employed as a stock boy under the tutelage of my soon-to-be father-in-law. In addition to a concession in Zern's Farmer's Market, my father-in-law owned a stand-alone store directly across the street from Zern's that was open an extra day longer than the market. Here he sold, what he referred to as "the serious hardware" — professional-grade trowels and hammers and other implements of construction with which I was not familiar at the time but would come to be well acquainted. Despite years of experience in other retail establishments, I was not permitted to operate the cash register. That privilege was enjoyed by only one person and his name was emblazoned on signage throughout the store. Instead, I was relegated to schlepping cartons of merchandise from the storage area — a large, dirty, poorly-ventilated barn-like structure that had been attached to the existing large, dirty, poorly-ventilated main building. Boxes were piled high and my job was to bring them up to the selling floor, empty them and, at my father-in-law's behest, make all of the contents fit in a space that was way to small for proper accommodation. In the summer, during which I spent many a weekend stretch, the heat was stifling. In winter, the building could be used to keep meat from spoiling. Days, no matter what the weather, were grueling marathons that monopolized entire weekends, including the hour-long ride to and from Gilbertsville. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for his generosity, affording me employment while I sought a job in my chosen field. I just have a funny way of showing my gratitude. 

On Fridays and Saturdays, the logistics of the operation were slightly altered, as my future spouse and her mother would come to open and run the stand in Zern's. I would work with my father-in-law at the hardware store across the street, the two of us coming up much earlier in the morning. While he was a sweet, pleasant man at home, he would succumb to a lycanthropic transformation somewhere around Schwenksville when he would be come a ruthless martinet bent on uncontested ruling over his retail empire. On Saturday evenings, I would head over to Zern's to help Mrs. P bring things to a close for the day. Those were my favorite times. First, I was sprung from the sometimes unreasonable demands of my father-in-law. Second, I got to spend time with my fiance (Mrs. P and I would marry in 1984). We would steal away from the "satellite stand" for a few minutes (this is probably the first time my father-in-law knows about this) and walk thorough the market to see what we could see. Sometimes we'd wander outside to the weekly flea market, where a glance in any direction looked like a living Dorothea Lange photograph. Here we would peruse the unusual (and unrecognizable) items offered for sale. Then we'd quickly rush back, grabbing a soft pretzel or a bag of old-fashioned penny candy, just in time to start the task of closing up the stand for another week.

For twenty-five years, I worked at Zern's. In my younger days, I fearlessly scaled rickety shelves to retrieve that one elusive gizmo that was missing from a customer's life. I was there to help bust through the back wall when we expanded our selling space. I assisted in the arrangement and promotion of special sales when my wife slowly, but diligently, transformed the one-time hardware/housewares store into a treasure trove of pop culture collectibles, bringing in cool memorabilia to join the (ever-shrinking) mix of screwdrivers and extension cords. Mrs. P creatively spearheaded an annual Coca-Cola Festival, offering more Coke branded items than you knew existed. During the summer, she turned the store into an indoor beach party, displaying everything needed for a rural summertime soiree. She single-handedly introduced "Mardi Gras" to the heretofore sheltered population of Gilbertsville.

Throughout my nearly three decades of employment, we would regularly hear customers tell us that Zern's was closing... for good. Every weekend, a growing number of shoppers — many of whom had it on good authority* — would explain confidential details of the fate of the venerable market. "Oh yeah," they would smugly cluck, cocking a thumb confidently around a faded overall strap, "this place was sold to [insert local land developer here]. I heard they're gonna tear the place down and put up a [bowling alley, amusement park, car wash, supermarket, housing development, apartment complex, golf course, multiplex movie theater]." Yep, every week, according to our loyal customer base, Zern's was a goner and would soon become any number of decidedly un-Zern's-like domains. I came to learn that Gilbertsville was "ground zero" for wrong information. They never got anything right. But, that was part of the charm. I suppose.

A fond(ant) farewell
In early 2007, my wife's family made the difficult, but realistic, decision to close their store in Zern's. It was a tough decision, but with many contributing factors (declining sales, my in-law's advancing age, a fucking Walmart within spitting distance), it was the right decision. We mounted an almost year-long liquidation sale — slashing prices, moving merchandise, clearing shelves and wondering what we would do with our weekends. Just after Thanksgiving of that year, my father-in-law contracted an auctioneer and the remaining merchandise was practically given away for pennies on the dollar. (My father-in-law was not happy with the auctioneer or his meager results. He still grumbles about it to this day.) At the end of the day, we closed up shop for the very last time. We left the Zern's parking lot like Lot's wife fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, never looking back for fear of being turned to pillar of fasnachts.

And then we never had to go to Zern's again. Mrs. Pincus remained in frequent contact with some former employees, as well as fellow merchants (some of whom are regular readers of this blog and may have been understandably offended by many things I've written, especially in the first, second and a little bit of the sixth paragraphs of this entry). Mrs. P has even returned to Zern's for a visit on several occasions. However, she went as a solo. I have not been back since the day we closed our doors. Recently, though, through my wife's Facebook page, I have been privy to the same rumor-mongering about Zern's that I heard in the past. Misinformation for the electronic age. But, this time, uncharacteristically, they got it right.

Zern's announced it was closing... for good.

In a lengthy Facebook post, the current owner cited a number of reasons for the proposed September 2018 closure, but the real reason is: Zern's is a relic. A dinosaur whose concept has long overstayed its welcome. A folksy, genial, single-proprietorship retail operation cannot survive in the world of big box mega-stores and internet shopping. It just can't. Even in a place like Gilbertsville that's several years behind the trends. The business is offered for sale, but I doubt there will be any takers. If there are, it will be to level the structure and build one of the previously mentioned options about which customers had speculated.

Do I have have memories of Zern's? Sure. There was no place like it. It was like a visit to Twilight Zone's Willoughby every weekend, if the citizens of Willoughby attempted to "jew down" the merchants. Do I have fond memories of Zern's? Few. It certainly gave me fodder for stories that made it to blog entries over the years. Will I ever stop talking about and thinking about Zern's once there no longer is a Zern's? 


* he said sarcastically 

No comments:

Post a Comment