The Grocery Store We Called Our Own

Candy, pop and 10-cent toys were on my mind every time I passed our neighborhood grocery store at the top of Centennial Street in the East End of Red Wing.

Nearly every neighborhood in Red Wing had its own grocery store at one time or another. They were important in a growing community and even provided bragging rights.

I didn’t know that by the time Paton’s Grocery became a fixture of my youth, it had gone through many owners and iterations, most of them of short duration. I found those details in the book “Red Wing’s Early Neighborhood Grocery Stores & Meat Markets,” by Sharon M. Nelson (2014). It’s an interesting book, even if you’re new to Red Wing.

Probably the first money I ever spent was at Paton’s, which was half-way between my home and Colvill School. I learned quickly that the bell above the front door announcing your arrival was also a reminder that you better have a plan to buy something. People don’t browse much at a small grocery store. They get what they need and leave. If no customers were there, you didn’t want to bother owner Bill Paton Jr. who was often working alone in the back of the store.

My recollection of the store was that is was careworn and smelled of meat. I only knew where the candy, pop and toys were. The pop was in a cooler to the left as you entered the store. Each bottle was held in a track by its neck with the bottle suspended in chilled water. You had to slide your choice of pop over to the “butterfly” release. The dime you slipped into the coin deposit allowed one pull out of the release. If the bottle slipped, you were out a dime. We made sure that whoever was working the front counter watched us so they would give us a dime to try again if we failed.

The penny candy was behind the front counter, of course, not far from the cigarettes. And the little packaged toys that I couldn’t afford were in the aisle behind the front counter. I couldn’t tell you where much of anything else was except that the meat counter was in back and the magazines were to the right as you entered the store. I think the frozen treats like Fudgsicles, Popsicles and Push-Ups were up front somewhere. I didn’t often buy ice cream treats because pop lasted longer.

The original store owner moved a store building there in 1900. It didn’t hurt that the store was right across East Seventh Street from the original Colvill School. The sidewalk retaining wall in front of the school still exists. There must have been lots of school kids who stopped at the store for candy.

My childhood friends and I would stop in on hot summer days for a cold grape or orange pop. My first taste of both Mountain Dew and Fresca were there. We would visit with Bill’s mother Frieda, who ran the store with her husband Bill Sr. until he died in 1958. Frieda was Grandma Paton to us. She worked the front counter a lot. I found out years later that she referred to me as “beggar Johnson” since I seldom had money and resorted to asking my friends for it. She probably called a lot of kids beggars back then since none of us had much money.

My brother Dave recalls how he thought he had reached the end of the rainbow when he was buying some candy and Bill asked him if he wanted to charge it.

“What? Really? I can do that?” he replied. Assured that he could, he charged it. Who wouldn’t when it’s free? For about a month he stopped in almost daily to charge candy, even for his friends. That didn’t end well for him when our folks got the bill.

My oldest brother, Bruce, who made money mowing and shoveling, loved to bring home pop and candy bars from the store and wave them in front of us. As he placed the candy bars in the freezer he’d announce that no one had better touch any of it. We all got a laugh, though, when one time he put his pop bottle in the freezer and it froze and broke.

My earliest kites were purchased at Paton’s for about 15 cents. Later, more durable plastic kites were sold there for about twice that price. I bought Superman, Batman and Flash comic books there as well as Mad magazine. The baseball cards I bought there mostly ended up in my bike’s spokes, especially if they weren’t Minnesota Twins. Somehow I also got hooked on Mallo Cups, collecting the points that could get you some free ones. I think I achieved that goal only once.

As you could imagine, Paton’s was where kids gathered outside. The first pair of tennis shoes I ever saw tied together and wrapped around a power line was in front of the store. I think the store’s front windows got cleaned each Halloween after getting soaped on Corn Night, the night before Halloween.

Inevitably, Paton’s and most other small stores closed since they couldn’t compete with larger stores. But East End kids from back then still have their own stories of Paton’s.

And even though I can now afford to buy candy and pop, it just isn’t the same.

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