In January of 1914, Henry Grafman signed the papers to buy the store owned by Joe Putterman and Max Edelstein at 603 W. Vliet Street, just down the block from the apartment the Grafmans shared.
For $770 [$15,000 in today’s dollars], the new proprietors took possession of the stock ($150), fixtures, shelving, ice-boxes and tools ($290), a Dayton scale ($100), a Dial cash register ($30), and $200 [$3,703] for goodwill. The property was owned by Mrs. Emmie Uehling, of 2617 Prairie (now Highland Boulevard), to whom Henry also paid monthly rent.
A kerosene dispenser and bins filled with coke and coal lined a wall away from the food. Cigars cost a nickel, and customers could buy tins of tobacco, coffee and other canned goods. Oatmeal, sugar, flour and other staples had to be weighed, and there was plenty of penny candy available for children who stopped by on their way to and from school. One of Anita's regular questions to her father was "Papa, may I have a piece of candy?"
Henry prided himself on the quality of his fruits and vegetables, and eventually acquired a commercial account. The family that owned Florsheim Shoes had a restaurant that specialized in vegetable dishes. All their produce came from Grafman’s.
The work was unending, but business was good. Jennie was charming, a good conversationalist and saleswoman; and Henry had a reputation for fairness in his weights and measures. When he sold a big bag of groceries (which cost about $1) he’d always toss in a handful of candy.
Honesty in weights and measures was no small matter. We’re used to plucking pre-weighed, pre-priced items from supermarket shelves, then watching as the cashier scans the price before we hand over our money. In the grocery stores of that era, every item was weighed, measured, hand-packaged in brown paper and tied with string. A grocer’s reputation for integrity had a very direct impact on the health of his business, for which there was plenty of competition. With three or four stores from which to choose within walking distance of Grafman’s and the natural tendency of people living within any neighborhood to gossip, a reputation for honesty was, literally, something a shopkeeper could take to the bank.
As new immigrant groups came into the neighborhood, Henry’s inventory changed to accommodate their needs. Since first buying the store, he’d specialized in produce, but he realized that well-traveled customers would gravitate towards the familiar product names with which they grew up. Therefore, the large influx of black families from the south in the mid-1920s brought a marked change in Henry’s store purchases.
Within a short time, Grafman’s was the place to go for cornmeal, salt pork, black-eyed peas, okra, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, rutabagas, kale, and watermelon. Wealthy white southerners who’d moved to Milwaukee heard about Grafman’s and made the trip to Vliet Street to buy the regional specialties they couldn’t find in their more upscale neighborhoods.
“He’d cut the melon into quarters and then slice it up as I was waiting for it.”
“The Fourth of July was a big day. Everything was taken out of the window to hold all the firecrackers, sparklers, punks, great big fat threatening ‘shooters,’ little bunches of small densely-packed ones all wrapped up in exotic red colored papers from China. A lot of money was taken in for wares that would go up in smoke and blasts. Also, many people got hurt and burned.
“Around Christmas time he’d have pomegranates, oranges, tangerines, big red Delicious apples and large black walnuts,” she says. “There was a policeman on the beat who would come in, place a walnut on one of the spindles of the chair we had in the store and whack it open with his nightstick.”
For both Anita and Harriet, the store was an extension of home. But Henry and Jennie had been saving their money, and in 1927, they moved into a spacious duplex on 16th and Lloyd streets. As a result, Anita attended Roosevelt Junior High. Harriet, who had become close to the principal and staff at Lincoln, continued there. Henry left the store each morning to take her from home to school; she’d walk to the store each afternoon. Anita also returned to the store in the afternoons, and the girls would sit in the back room doing homework, helping out when the store was busy, and helping set dinner out in the back when the time came.
“I liked weighing sugar from the bin,” recalls Anita. “I didn’t know the prices and had to ask Papa ‘How much is this or that?’ Nothing was marked.”
Valparaiso University History Major
Edited by Joel Willems,
Curator, Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear