In the late 1960s, my mother and father got into operating a family business rather unexpectedly. My great aunt, who had owned and operated a corner grocery store in Ocean City, New Jersey, for decades, died from cancer. My mother acquired the store property through my great aunt’s will.
Mom had been a nurse her entire adult life, both in a doctor’s office and in a hospital. Dad was a school bus driver and retail and wholesale eggman. That’s right, he sold and delivered eggs to residential and commercial customers just like a milkman. Neither knew the first thing about operating a grocery store.
Above the store was a small two-bedroom apartment, where my great aunt had lived. My folks saw an opportunity to move out of the house we were renting and operate a family business, which would give them more time with their three boys. The store also had a small kitchen and living room downstairs, so we could have meals together and Mom and Dad could wait on customers. And so, Fulton’s Market was born.
As for my two brothers and me, the thought of having unlimited access to free candy, chips, sodas, ice cream and Tastykake products eased the trauma of relocating to a new town and changing schools. Unfortunately, my parents anticipated our expectations and laid down the law that everything we took from the store had to be paid for. Thus, my brothers and I became quite adept at surreptitious snack acquisition.
Now, you’re probably wondering how two adults and three boys made do with two tiny bedrooms. Easy. My folks got one. I got the other by virtue of being the oldest. And my brothers got to sleep in beds in the attic, which was accessed via pull-down stairs. Even though the attic featured bare rafters, sundry storage boxes and no heat, I’m confident that they were quite comfortable in the winter with their electric blankets and in the summer with the two tiny windows that allowed for excellent air circulation when there was a breeze.
Off to a Strong Start
Life was good. Fulton’s Market was a hit. The neighborhood loved the convenience of getting their milk, bread, deli items, goodies, newspaper and other staples by walking to the corner and having a pleasant chat with my parents. Mom left nursing, Dad dropped his two jobs and they operated the store from 7 am to 11 pm together.
My brothers and I did what young boys do. We raided the candy case and ice cream freezer when no one was looking. Even when Dad caught us sneaking a Taskykake out of the store and complained that we were depleting the profit from that box of product, he let us go without repercussions. I suspect he helped himself to a pack or two of cigarettes each week.
The Golden Years
I survived high school and went off to college. My brothers moved out of the attic. The store chugged along, just getting by but facing increasing pressure from the local supermarket, whose prices on virtually everything were lower. My folks added made-to-order sandwiches and fresh-brewed coffee to their offerings. Fortunately, the summer months brought hordes of vacationers and college students to Ocean City and produced an abundant flow of customers for Fulton’s Market for three months of the year.
The upstairs dining room furniture was moved to the garage and replaced with a bed so that I could have a place to sleep during summer breaks from college and weekend visits. Dad wasn’t crazy about the fact that my summer job was working as a stock boy at the supermarket. Hey, the A&P paid well and the checkout girls were cute. The hours my folks put in were long, but they didn’t complain … at least not to me.
The Winds of Change
Then the first “convenience store” in Ocean City opened five blocks from our place. The Cumberland Farms store sold the same stuff as Fulton’s Market, but at prices only large chain stores could offer. Toilet paper cost my father less than his grocery supplier charged him if he sent me to buy a dozen rolls at the A&P. Most of the stuff on our shelves didn’t move.
With each passing year, I could tell my parents were becoming increasingly worried about the future of the business. My mother was offered a nursing job at the hospital. My dad said he could handle the store hours himself, so she accepted the position. Life went on.
Next Chapter: Tom Fulton’s Guide to Customer Relations