Ed’s General Store: Letters from Kyiv
Memories from Cape May Point, NJ
Life takes you places and leaves you with memories. Lately, I have been remembering Ed’s General Store in Cape May Point. Well, not so much because it was the only commercial establishment in that village but because of the family that owned it. That family made that store have a certain feel, a personality, a soul of its own. It has never been the same since they sold it in 1977. There was a time in America when most businesses were privately owned as opposed to the corporate chain and private equity monstrosities that exist today. Cape May Point’s General Store is still privately held as far as I know but will it ever be as good as it was when Ed and his family owned it? I won’t be able to tell you because I don’t live in Cape May Point nor do I spend my summers there anymore.
What I can tell you is that from 1969 through 1977, it was the best “General Store” I ever had the pleasure of knowing and spending my hard-earned lawn-mowing cash. The real reason was because of Ed, not because of what he sold although that might not be entirely true. Sure, his wife and daughter were fixtures in the store. Ed was that old school proprietor. You know the ones that make you keep coming back because of their particular level of service, quirks or personality. Now the full truth is that we didn’t have much choice since Ed’s General Store was the only game in town. But maybe if Ed and his family weren’t how they were, maybe we wouldn’t have gone as often. Maybe we would have held off on buying this or that until our weekly trip to Acme in Cape May instead. But we didn’t because we liked Ed and his family. I can’t speak for my brothers, my grandma, grandpa, dad or mom but Ed particularly had an effect on me personally. Otherwise, why would I still remember him not these forty-five years later?
Maybe it is better first to describe the store and then explain about Ed. Cape May Point’s only general store sits on a little traffic circle when you enter from Sunset Boulevard. That street is Cape Avenue and when you enter the Point, the store is on the right as you come up on the traffic circle. Our summer place was on Cape Avenue just beyond the other side of the circle. So as we were almost at the end of our journey from Woodbury a few days after school let out, we passed Ed’s and that was a reminder that a new summer was about to begin. Now, if I had my way at five or six years old, then I would have run straight to Ed’s for some penny candy. But the car had to be unpacked for the summer ahead. Groceries unloaded. Summer clothes packed away in the antique dressers. Windows opened. And then, well it is the seashore so the sea and beach must be visited first.
Better believe that the very next day, first thing, I was off like a bat out of hell for my first trip to Ed’s. Now, that first trip required a pair of flip-flops because you couldn’t make the journey barefoot until you got your summer feet. There was a worn path through the traffic circle with sticky pebbles and the street across from the store had hard, sharp gravel. Ed and his family had opened the store in 1969 when I was but 4 years old so my first journey on my own was when I was 6 in 1971. Those first few journeys were for Ed’s penny candy and maybe a copy of “The Star and Wave” if it happened to be a Thursday. Later journey’s were for hoagies which we’ll talk about later. Why the excitement for that first journey?
Winter seemed like a lifetime as a kid. A trip to Ed’s meant the glorious freedom of a summer at the shore without a care other than mowing the lawn, helping with groceries, trips to the laundromat in Cape May, picking out fish at the Lobster House seafood market or produce at one of the many Cape May County farmer’s stands. These were usually an adventure in themselves and never really felt much like chores. Maybe Ed had changed something at the store, or some new penny candy or popsicles would be in stock. Of course, I also just wanted to see Ed and his wife at the register.
The store was a pale green on the outside with a chalkboard listing various sundries and Ed’s Tide Chart which he always kept current. Two old Texaco gas pumps stood by out front and there were maybe five or six parking spots. An aged screen door was the entry to that small world of commerce. As you stepped across the threshold, the comforting smell that was unique to Ed’s store brought memories of summer past and summers yet to come. It was a mixture of fresh cold cuts, a dill pickle barrels, old wood, pipe tobacco and that salty sea air. I can smell it in my memory as I type these words. Ed was almost always behind the deli counter and so I would always go there to say hello first. He was always happy to see us summer folk and smiled as he greeted me by name. His wife always had a smile when I was picking my penny candy and paying at the register.
Ed was important to me for one particularly special reason. He was my hoagie mentor. Hell, Ed was a an official “Jersey Hoagie Whisperer”. This is not something we say lightly in Jersey, where we take our sandwiches and pizza very seriously. Ed taught me about the just right mix of oil and vinegar, the importance of good deli meat and cheese, how the bread makes a difference and that it was necessary for just enough salt, pepper, oregano and the exact right kind of hot peppers. Every hoagie I have ever eaten since Ed’s sandwich education has been based on that knowledge and every one is judged based on his standards. In Jersey, this serious business and only people from there, Philly and New York will really “get it”.
By the time I hit eight years old, that first trip to Ed’s was for a hoagie. Inside, the store was a bit dark. Various sundries lined shelves, a bait freezer was to the left, the deli counter was in the back and the register was by the front door with an antique display case for penny candy. Ed’s wife sat as a sentinel at the register and checked out your items. There was a stairway that led to the living quarters and some shut off rooms in the back. Those places we were not allowed to enter were always a mystery to me.
What was not a mystery, was Ed’s genuine care for his store and customers. He was an excellent source for fishing and crabbing information and I often successfully took his advice on where to fish, what bait to use as well as the best tackle for catching fish. Every summer, I made hundreds of trips to Ed’s. Mostly in the morning before fishing or the beach. Often waiting for him to open and standing on the steps outside. Many trips for a popsicle or something cold to drink after the beach. Sometimes I would make a run for the lifeguards for their lunch as well.
The summer I came back to find that Ed had sold the store broke my heart. The place never looked, felt or smelled the same after that. My trips were not as frequent. We bought more at the Acme on our weekly runs. I still saw Ed around town and spoke to him at length. But that personality and touch he gave the store was irreplaceable. I was sad for years after he sold. Sometimes the people make the place.
End Note: I have been lucky enough to reconnect with Ed’s daughter who lives in Cape May Point. With gratitude to her, Jean Berghaus Harris, I was able to write this and have photos from those times. Sitting here in Kyiv, I dream now of being in Cape May Point and eating a good hoagie.