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Column: Old grocery stores were a home for tasty treats

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WORTHINGTON — Jerry Fiola is up to the final hurdles on a personal history project to identify all of the neighborhood groceries that served Worthington through decades gone by. Worthington’s little stores.

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How many do you think there were?

Jerry has identified 16 of them and traced their ownership from the days when the doors first opened until the days when the doors were closed for the last time. Sixteen.

I don’t want to steal thunder from Jerry. He is planning to unveil all that he has learned in due time. Many people who have talked of his work have talked of “little stores” — “We had a little store in our neighborhood.” Many people also say “mom and pop stores.” It was only after I listened to part of a conversation that I appreciated through passing years Worthington had a number of what actually were mom and pop stores that did not deal in groceries and which were located in the downtown.

I think of these because — I don’t know how this happened — I came to benefit personally from them.

I am thinking first of Benjamin Bakery, which was on Third Avenue across from the courthouse. The bakery was run by “mom and pop,” by Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Benjamin. In Worthington Grade School we were seated alphabetically. So it was that the Benjamins’ good daughter Dorothy was seated near me or next to me through all of our grade school years — B next to C.

I don’t remember the date of Dorothy’s birthday, but she observed it each year with a party. All her guests were invited to the bakery. There would be a few games in the big back room where the ovens did the baking. Then Dorothy’s mother would say, “All right — come in here and get what you like.” The party guests strolled by two big cases with curved glass fronts. There were doughnuts and cinnamon rolls and caramel rolls, there were cake slices and cookies. What would you like? It was about the most wondrous party any kid could imagine.

Oh — and the Benjamins roasted peanuts. Little Spanish peanuts in red skins. The peanuts were poured onto a large tray. I suppose there was some oil, and I know there was salt. Then they went into an oven. Of course I have had many kinds of peanuts in the years since I was a guest at a Dorothy Benjamin birthday party, but I never found any peanuts that matched the peanuts prepared by Mr. Benjamin. They were super peanuts, and they also were a part of the party.

It doesn’t surprise me that I seemed to be attracted to these kinds of “mom and pop stores.” Obviously they were rewarding.

Al Verlautz was a long-time Worthington resident. The Verlautz family lived on Fifth Avenue. One day that mom and pop team made a decision to open an ice cream store on 10th Street at (about) the site of Lien Electric. I don’t remember the name of the ice cream — I don’t remember if it was Schwen’s or Schwan’s. Schwan’s, I think. There were both.

Part of the lure of the Verlautz ice cream parlor that brought Worthington residents in a stream was the time in history when it was opened. Ice cream sundaes and malted milk shakes were not yet commonplace. There was nowhere but an ice cream store to find hot fudge. And there were ice cream sodas. As far as my explorations have revealed, ice cream sodas are no longer on the market anywhere. I regret this very much.

Anyway —

Though C and V did not share even the same room in grade school, I became a buddy of Jim Verlautz. Jim did not have birthday parties, but his mother seemed to have a rule: “Anybody who comes in the store with Jim gets a free ice cream cone.” Big cones with two dips. So it was — when I wasn’t eating free salted peanuts or a newly-baked cinnamon roll, I might be licking free ice cream cones. Vanilla and chocolate. You think I must have planned it that way. Well, I didn’t. I have to say it all “just happened.” It was great.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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