Today, let's buy candy at the corner store. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Our next-door neighbors
during the depression years in St. Paul were a
Russian-Jewish family. The parents got out before
the Revolution, and in the wake of pogroms. They
lived upstairs in a duplex and worked long hours
running a nearby corner grocery while their
children went to the university.
Now I find the museum catalog for Ellen Beasley's
exhibit at the National Building Museum in
Washington, DC. It's called The Corner
Store, and it brings those sweet and difficult
years of the 1930s back with great poignancy.
Beasley has studied the corner stores of Galveston,
Texas. And, while they have their own flavor, I
still have no trouble tracing my childhood within
The corner store was a practical answer to real
need, back when few people had automobiles, and
primitive ice boxes were all we had to store food.
It was normal to walk to the store and to buy in
small quantities. Small stores were spread
throughout the city. My bicycle gave me ready
access to six or seven of them.
They were corner stores because that's where
they were visible in residential neighborhoods.
And, since they had to be staffed for long hours
with the whole family pitching in, we often found
them in the half-basement of an apartment building
with the family living upstairs. We used our
pennies to buy candy on the way home from grade
school. Some of the family owners would tolerate
us; others would let us know that we were pests.
Corner stores were above ground in low-lying
Galveston, but the same people ran them. Beasley
shows photos of the Cantini and Tropea families.
Arminio Cantini emigrated to Galveston in 1910 and
married first-generation Elena LaBarbera here. They
ran stores in the neighborhood of K and 38th while
they built up enough capital to go into other
dealings. During those years they sold every kind
of grocery. Then they pumped gas for early drivers,
Sebastiano Tropea was a first-generation American.
He joined the Merchant Marines and met his wife
Angeline in Italy, after WW-II. They were
latecomers to the corner store when they bought one
at F and 16th in 1959. But they ran it until 1981.
They made their own sausage and together this
strikingly handsome couple became more than corner
store proprietors. They became keepers of an old
institution in a city famous for honoring historic
institutions. By 1981, the automobile, the shopping
cart, the refrigerator, and the supermarket had
long since ended the era of the corner store. By
then, the educated children of those storekeepers
next door to us were finishing their professional
I pause as I pass tinned meats or bulk candy in the
supermarket. For there I meet fleeting ghosts of
the old corner store. I wouldn't be so foolish as
to want to go back. But I surely treasure the
memory of those old portals into the good life -
into penny candy and into bare needs - into
education and into prosperity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Beasley, E., The Corner Store. Washington, DC:
National Building Museum, 1999.
I am grateful to Ellen Beasley for additional
A typical family operation: Sebastiano and Georgia
Mencacci and their children inside their store at
the corner of Avenue O-1/2 and 21st Street in
Galveston. This picture was taken around 1910 and
provided courtesy of Leo H. Mencacci, Jr. (from the
Beasley source above.)
Owl Market,1001 Bush Street, San Francisco. This
corner store is part of an apartment built in 1915.
courtesy of Ann Bloomfield, from the Beasley source
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.