If a car had crashed through the front windows of the store on a busy day, a lot of people would have been hurt; someone could even have been killed. This is why you find four-foot concrete pegs with deep foundations around the perimeter of so many buildings these days; they are there to protect the building and occupants from out-of-control vehicles crashing into them. We didn’t have anything like that around North Hill Foods back in the eighties. We were vulnerable and didn’t even really recognize it, especially on days the store was full of people.
The store did a fair amount of trade most days but Sunday was by far the busiest day of the week. State Blue Laws prohibited any business other than family-owned operations to be open on Sundays. As we were the only family owned grocery store of any size in the city, we could be open when the other big corporate stores, Red Owl, Piggly Wiggly, and later, Miracle Mart had to stay closed. This meant that as any church goer in the city was getting out of services and thinking about lunch – if they needed anything from the store – they pretty much had only one option for groceries, giving us a corner on the market.
The state also limited the number of employees outside the family who could work on Sundays to three. This meant that the whole family had to be able to deliver meaningful work. I always wondered why Dad trained us in as cashiers at such a young age. I was nine. My two older brothers were eleven and sixteen. I see now that it wasn’t because we were such wonderful protégés. He needed the help, the labor, to operate the store with a skeleton crew on the busiest day of the week.
I remember that as soon as we were dismissed from church, the five of us kind of hustled off to the store to open it. We had to get the lights on and the tills up and running before the rush started. I remember being sent to unlock the front doors and usually finding a crowd of people outside waiting to get in. I shudder to think what carnage would have been wrought had the car hit the store on a Sunday.
Fortunately, the accident happened on a Monday morning, when the front of the store was deserted. I wasn’t there; I arrived with my Dad to survey aftermath and listen to those who were there tell of the experience.
Every department was recovering from the Sunday rush by restocking and facing the shelves. The store was quiet, the inventory low. Pat, the produce manager, had just left aisle one, the produce aisle. This is where the fast-approaching car bounced over the parking bumper, struck the front of the store and entered the building, crashing through the picture window and shoving aside the large banana table before plowing through the peanut butter and jelly section on its way to aisle two.
The second aisle was canned good: beans, vegetables, and the like. Sharon, the grocery department manager, had just been on that end of the aisle working overstock when the shelves jumped with the impact of the car slamming into them. As she looked back up the aisle she saw the left side with pork-n-beans sort of swing over as if on invisible hinges and crunch into the other side where all kinds of corn were on display.
A lot of the car’s momentum had been checked by the low course of cinderblocks on which the big picture windows rested. Still more momentum was absorbed by the shelves and furnishings of aisle one and two. By the time it got to aisle three, it was coming to a stop and only pushed shelves aside and into each other a bit.
Ted, the assistant manager, was in the raised office on the other side of the store when the accident happened. He heard what sounded like an explosion when the car hit the store. (Ted had been in the Air Force and knew the sound of ordinance going off.) The low sound of breaking brickwork and collapsing shelves was accompanied by the chiming of thick glass falling and shattering, some of shards making pinging sounds as they fell onto the roof and then the trunk of the entering car.
The vehicle heaved to a rest before it could do much damage to the far side of aisle three. The last of the jelly jars were still sliding and falling, making a dull crack, plop and glop as they broke on the floor, when the car horn began to blare into the shocked store. “That’s a bit late,” Ted thought as he leaped to his feet. The horn sounded continuously as he rushed down the office steps and sprinted behind the check stands to the driver’s side door. Although retired, he was still quite fit from years of military training and made the distance in what would have been record speed if there was a competition for that sort of thing. He opened the door to find a disoriented teenager with his head pressed against the steering wheel, who’d presumably mashed the gas instead of the brake while inexpertly trying to park the car. The kid lifted his head, the horn silenced. Clearly, he was just as shocked as everyone else.
After reaching in and shutting off the car, Ted turned to inspect the damage, dreading to find anyone in the wreckage. He called out as he pushed his way into the debris. Sharon and Pat were on the other side of the damage and both called back that the area had been deserted and they were okay. Relief settled on all of them as one final section of glass crashed to the ground, making them all jump one last time.
Ted really knew how to handle disasters. He called the police for the kid, and the insurance agency for the store, then called my Dad with the news of the accident. Ted didn’t let anyone begin cleanup until the assessor arrived, which gave us all time to inspect the damage. It really was a miracle no one was hurt. Once an assessment of the damage had been made, Ted directed the cleanup effort. He ran it with military precision and had us back up and operating before the end of the day.
Dad knew we would always face one potential crisis after another at the store and that we were vulnerable in ways he couldn’t predict or imagine. He’d need people there who could make management decisions on the fly in order to handle it all. Every good owner/operator knows this. Events requiring a management decision happened all the time and he knew he couldn’t make all of decisions himself. This is why he recruited, found, or trained good department managers to help operate the store. Ted was one of his best finds.
Scot Sorrells 2018