HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — In an era of the super-size supermarkets, Gordon Grocery is an anachronism.
For starters, Gordon Grocery, known colloquially to patrons as Gordon’s, looks like a general store in the middle of a residential block in Hagerstown’s posh North End. Inside, the store is in a room wide enough to accommodate two aisles of dry and packaged goods, wine and beer, and a deli. The cashier’s counter is at the store’s front, middle seam. The register is at least 70 years old.
“It doesn’t tell you how much change to give the customer,” said John Gordon between customer transactions on a brisk Monday afternoon. The store still uses credit accounts – stored in old wooden crates – and still makes home deliveries, though no longer are they carried out via bicycle.
These are a few of the quirks that customers say have kept them coming back to Gordon Grocery, a family-owned and operated store, for three generations.
Mom-and-pop stores like Gordon Grocery, represent a small segment of one of Washington County’s biggest business sectors, retail. Washington County retail businesses generate more than a million dollars in sales, according to U.S. Census data.
But the measure of a neighborhood grocery store cannot be measured solely in dollars and cents. Family-owned grocers play an important social role, or at least that’s what the customers who shop there say.
“This is an institution,” said Kim Hamilton, a 55-year-old North End Hagerstown resident, as Cynthia Gordon Millsop totaled her groceries at the counter. “It’s Gordon Grocery for goodness sake.”
The late Harry Clinton Gordon Sr. opened the shop in 1923 and the store has been in the same location ever since. The business was passed down to his son, the late Harry Gordon Jr., and then to the next generation – Cindy Gordon Millsop, Tony Gordon and John Gordon.
Today, Cindy Millsop and John Gordon run the shop.
“When I was younger, we always looked forward to the ice cream case breaking down because Daddy would say ‘Invite all your friends over to eat the ice cream before it melts,”‘ recalled Cindy Gordon Millsop, who is 68. “We used to do it in bulk, what was it, like five gallons?”
“We used to have tubs,” said brother John Gordon, 55, who still lives in the childhood home next to the shop. “It was a big stop for people going down to the high school.”
Customers described the shop as unusual – a good unusual.
For years, the late Harry Gordon Jr. had a running gag of weighing babies and young children on a scale near the cash register.
“There’s one of my babies,” Hamilton said, fawning over a sepia-tinged photo that John Gordon presented of her son, Peter, smiling on the scale, “14 pounds, age 4,” according to the back of the snapshot.
Birthday wishes to frequent customers are written on a chalkboard outside the shop. Every year, the store posts its countdown to Christmas starting the day after Christmas. Santa was expected to make an appearance Saturday, Dec. 11, during one of the store’s monthly wine tastings. They post photos of Santa and kids throughout the store and plan to do so again this year.
The bad news is that there are some who fear family-owned grocery stores are on the verge of extinction, with the biggest threat coming from supermarkets and megamarkets, where customers can get manicures, oil changes and fresh tomatoes in a single shopping trip.
“All we have is service,” Millsop said.
But their customers say service is what has kept Gordon Grocery in the game.
Kay Keller, 71, of Hagerstown, who shops at Gordon about twice a week, said she likes that John Gordon carries her groceries to her car. They’ve also got a wider selection of goods.
“They get things before the supermarket,” said Keller, who stopped by the store with her daughter, 49-year-old Kendra Bryan, a fan of their crab cakes.
John Gordon flashed a few strategically placed products throughout the interview – like 479 degrees Popcorn, “Which made Oprah’s Favorite Things list,” Gordon said, before showing off a few other celebrity-endorsed products.
Millsop said it was uncertain whether Gordon Grocery would endure for a fourth generation – none of the founder’s great grandkids have shown interest in owning the shop, Millsop said.
But it’s not the end for Gordon Grocery.
“Not any time soon,” Millsop said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)