Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1999
Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.
My earliest childhood shopping memory is of Marilyn Monroe, wearing hair rollers under a scarf, sans makeup, pushing a grocery cart through George’s Market on North Main Street in Woodbury, Connecticut (pop. 3,000).
Small town life in the early 1950s had a look and a feel: a store’s appearance, inside or out, wouldn’t have changed for decades. George’s Market had a squared-off false wooden facade, just like saloons in cowboy movies. The floors were of wood strips, the walls were plain painted plaster except for the waist-high dado of bead board. Narrow aisles threaded through canyons of shelves packed chock-a-block with merchandise.
I was barely four-years-old and unmoved by my proximity to the world’s greatest sex symbol. Louie, the butcher at George’s Market, was not unmoved. A mountain of a man, Louie wanted Miss Monroe’s business in the worst way. The meat counter in George’s Market was all the way in the back of the store, which wasn’t far since, like all grocery stores of the time, the place was tiny. Louie would passionately offer up one tempting cut after another: beef, chicken, pork…until Miss Monroe would, oh, happy day, select something. My mother could have rolled her eyes to the ceiling, a good 12 to 15 feet high.
Next door, Canfield’s Pharmacy, a Mansard-roofed, wooden clapboard building, still had a cracker barrel, surrounded by old codgers chawin’ and chewin’ the fat. Canfield’s had a real soda fountain where cherry cokes were concocted before your eyes….
Oops, this is a Winnetka Way article!
What I like about Winnetka is that it’s still possible to re-live an authentic 1950s shopping experience. How is that defined? Physically, it means an absence of track or indirect lighting, carpeted floors, dropped acoustical tile ceilings and “luxury finishes.” Before stores became trendy, before we started creating ambiances and theme-based decors, stores just were. A store would have wood strip or linoleum floors, maybe an entrance of hexagonal floor tile, glass transoms above the door and store windows, dropped fluorescent lights, a high pressed-tin ceiling, and plain plaster walls, probably painted white.
A stroll up and down Green Bay Road in Hubbard Woods reveals some good news: these physical features are alive and well in various stores. I counted over 12 tin ceilings, several wood floors and many transoms over store windows or doors.
The best authentic store experience in Hubbard Woods is at Al’s Meats, 930 Green Bay. It has the best tin ceiling, a grape and grape leaf pattern. The chrome and metal refrigerated meat cases and the “Milk – Cream – Butter – Eggs” cooler are classics. You can watch Joe Spera (Al’s son) saw meat with a real saw on an 18” thick wood block.
The east side of Lincoln Avenue north of Elm Street has some of the best window and door transoms around. On West Elm Street, Lakeside Foods with its narrow aisles, wood paneling and ingenious paper goods storage along the west wall up to the high ceiling, and The Village Toy Shop with its narrow aisles and shelves full-to-brimming with merchandise, both convey the proper atmosphere.
The most authentic experience awaits in Johnsen’s Sea Foods, run by Maxine Madsen and her son, Jack, who represents the third generation involved in this family business. The store was started in Hubbard Woods in 1936 by Jack’s grandfather and Mr. Johnsen. Johnsen’s moved to its 805 Elm Street location in 1945. From its neon red lobster in the window to the mint green display cases purchased in 1936, Johnsen’s is a visual treat—original marble work tables and back splash along the walls, bead board wainscoting, hanging fluorescent light fixtures, original window transoms, red brick linoleum floor tiles, and a wonderful set of inner-lit display signs along the entire west wall. Signs read “Olives and Pickles,” “Cocktail Specialties,” “Usinger Milwaukee,” “Fine Sausages,” “Imported and Domestic Cheese,” “Smuckers Preserves.” My favorite: a hand-written note taped to the cash register, “We have Norwegian lefse.”
In an increasingly homogenized world, Winnetka is blessed to have authentic shops that preserve the spirit of individualized retail service. It is also blessed with a goodly number of stores that retain many of their original architectural features. See how many of them you can find next time you’re out.