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Florence's Family Album:
Shopping at Hartje's
By Florence Holub
Eighty years ago, long before the advent of the refrigerator, the supermarket, and plastic wrap, most San Francisco residents bought their household goods at small neighborhood stores. And in 1925, when my parents moved our family to the city from Idaho, we happily joined with our neighbors in patronizing Hartje's, the general store closest to our home.
The city was peppered with many such stores, which, as the word "general" implies, filled every need. Our shopping expeditions were a great improvement over farm life, where my mother had to milk the cows, gather the hens' eggs, and bake our daily bread in a wood stove in the kitchen. Can you imagine the pleasure it was for her to be able to walk a short distance to purchase a quart of milk, a carton of eggs, and a loaf of bread already baked!
Below is a reprint of my November 1988 column in the Voice. I hope you will enjoy this story of a young girl's earliest shopping trip.
An old photograph I saw recently, showing Hartje's Grocery Store on the corner of Chattanooga and 22nd streets, brought back an unforgettable day in my childhood.
On that day in 1926, some lady friends of my mother unexpectedly came to call. My mother invited them into the parlor and began to prepare coffee for her guests. Feeling there should be baked goods to offer with the coffee, she instructed me, a preschooler, to go on my first shopping assignment.
I was told to look up and down before I crossed both of the streets on the way to Hartje's, which was a half block from home. I was to hold the money tightly in my hand so I wouldn't lose it. I was to ask for four cinnamon rolls, and as a reward, I could buy candy for my little brother and myself, with the change from my purchase. The last part was easy, but the rest was more difficult. I followed the directions conscientiously and at the same time repeated over and over to myself, "Four rolls, four rolls, four rolls," so I wouldn't forget my mission.
It was with great relief that I entered the store and passed the money and the responsibility to the storekeeper with these words, "My mother wants four rolls."
Mr. Hartje was an amiable, hard-working grocer whose store was filled with a wide variety of household goods. Brooms, mops, buckets, washboards, brown laundry soap, sacks of potatoes, beans, lentils, and cans of food lined the walls, floor to ceiling. He had a special pole with two claws to grab the items too high to reach.
The counter was filled with goodies: a glass case of bakery goods, a huge jar of oatmeal cookies, large lengths of lunch meat waiting to be cut, and links of sausages hanging from a hook above. Below the counter behind glass were open boxes of candy that I was appraising when Mr. Hartje asked, "What kind of rolls?"
Stunned, I thought for a long time, but I simply could not remember what kind, so he made a guess based on long experience and put it in a bag while I chose the candy for my brother and me.
Back home, when my mother opened the bag expecting to find rolls to serve with coffee, she found instead four rolls of toilet tissue, which brought squeals of good-natured laughter from both her and her friends. Happily, I was not in disgrace.
As the ladies sipped their coffee without rolls, my brother and I sat on the front steps savoring the sweet, buttery flavor of the hard candy I'd chosen. We saved the "butterball" wrappers to later play a game we had made up called "Chasing Butterflies" -- but that's another story.
Note: A generation later, I returned, married with children, to Noe Valley, where we settled into a house on 21st Street, not far from Hartje's. The store looked much the same, in spite of the lapse of time, except that the new storekeepers were Mr. Hartje's two affable, middle-aged sons!
Today, the building still stands, but it no longer houses the wonderful, old-fashioned general store that I remember so well.
In an effort to resolve some confusion about which building was Hartje's in the old photograph, I turned up a few interesting tidbits: Hartje's Grocery Store was originally located on the northeast corner of 22nd and Chattanooga streets. But sometime after the turn of the (19th) century, the grocery business moved across the street, to the northwest corner of Chattanooga and 22nd. That's where it was when my family moved here in 1925.
After phoning all the Hartjes in the phone book, I connected with Dot Hartje, who had married one of the Hartje boys, a fireman. Dot reminded me that the Hartjes lived in a fine Victorian house at 18 Chattanooga Street, which had a side yard consisting of a full city lot. There were 13 children in the family, but one died at birth, leaving a dozen. On most days, you could walk by and hear the Hartje children laughing and playing in the yard, and it would sound like recess time at the local grammar school.
Dot is in her 90s now, and says she is not sure when the store finally closed. However, she thinks it may have survived until the 1970s. Today, the building on the northwest corner of the intersection appears to be strictly residential. The original Hartje building, at 3548 22nd Street, now houses Sofia Skin Care.
If there are other Hartjes out there with information to share, I'd love to hear from you. --F.H.