With Tops Supermarket recently closing, I’m reminded how grocery shopping in Fulton has changed over the years. Before Aldi’s, Price Chopper or Wal-Mart’s mega store, our favorite grocers were right in our neighborhood. For younger folks, that may seem hard to believe, but some longtime Fultonians know it’s true.
“There used to be 72 grocers operating in Fulton at one time,” remembered Fran Mirabito, a member of the family who once operated several neighborhood stores in and around Fulton. “This would have been during the 1930s,” Fran explained. “There were bigger stores, like A & P and Acme, but in addition to them, every neighborhood had their own store that sold a little bit of everything.”
Fran shared this with me a few years ago when I was having lunch with him and several of his friends. In that group were other Fultonians: Bob Green, Vince Caravan, Don Ross, Bart Chalone, Wally Auser and Dr. Kenneth Kurtz. These men used to meet weekly to share a meal, discuss local and national news, and reminisce about their days working and raising families in Fulton. (I was informed that other men and women would join them from time to time.)
Meeting with those friends got me thinking about the neighborhood of my youth. I grew up on the west side of the city, north of Broadway, and the two neighborhood stores I remember were Manitta’s and Sieron’s. Through my work with the Fulton Public Library’s Memoir Project, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with two people who know a lot about those stores: Jean Sieron Niver and Dominic “Doc” Manitta.
The story of Sieron’s, which was located on West First Street, begins with Jean’s parents, John and Genevieve Sieron, who opened the store in 1929. Jean came along several years later and remembers growing up in the store.
“I had various jobs throughout my childhood,” Jean said. “I learned how to correctly bag groceries, stock shelves and eventually progressed to waiting on customers when I had learned how to make change (the old-fashioned way).
“As a preteen and teen, I was given the privilege of taking on an important department in the store: the candy counter! The three-shelf square stand was the home to a large variety of ‘penny’ candy and chocolate candy bars. I loved neatly arranging the bars on the stand by size: Snickers, Milky Way and 3 Musketeers on the bottom, Nestlé bars in the middle and the tall Mars varieties on top. They were surrounded by numerous boxes of individually-wrapped candy and gum.”
Jean’s responsibilities at the store continued to grow, including regular visits to the nearby Stanley Tobacco Company where she selected the candy Sieron’s sold. “Walking into their stockroom (their converted living room) was like walking into Candy Heaven,” Jean remembered. “The wooden shelves were stacked high with hundreds of boxes. What would I select? What would kids like the best?”
I imagined that Jean might have been the envy of Fulton children and she confirmed that in her memoir: “For years, many of my Phillip Street classmates had me shopping for those treats with their ‘extra’ lunch money. I returned to school from lunch carrying numerous tiny brown paper bags with their choices.”
One block further north of Sieron’s on West First was Manitta’s, with its famous tag line “Fulton’s Biggest Little Store.” Founded in the mid-1930s by Angelina and Salvatore Manitta, it soon became popular not only for the neighborhood, but throughout the city. Whether it was their display of fresh produce out front, their renowned meats cut fresh by the Manitta’s older son Phil, or the great conversation you could expect while you shopped, everybody knew about the store. Here’s a memory from the younger Manitta son, Doc, about one of the store’s most popular items:
“I bought my produce in Syracuse at the Farmers Market. All of us would be there at five in the morning, our trucks lined up, ready to go in and buy the best produce from the big retailers. We used to pick up bananas in huge bunches that would hang on a rack. For a long time we sold them for 11 cents a pound, and when I raised it to 12 cents my customers wanted to kill me!
“I used to buy anywhere from five to ten 40-pound boxes of bananas at the market. At times, they would save the ones that were going bad and I would buy them for $2.00 a box. One time, I got a call from the produce guy, who said, “Doc, they gassed the bananas too much (They used to make bananas ripen faster by gassing them) and these are gonna get soft and ripen too quickly. We’re not going to be able to sell them.”
“I said, ‘How many boxes you got?’
‘A hundred fifty. And I’m gonna send my grandson down with them. I want a dollar a box.’
“No, I’ll give you fifty cents a box,” I said, “and I’ll be responsible for them. Well, everybody who came in the store got a box of bananas for a dollar. I had people lined up out the door. Within two days, they were gone.”
Today, the supermarkets where we shop have specials and sales, but when was the last time you saw people lined up outside a grocery store to take advantage of a huge discount? But people didn’t make regular visits to Manitta’s and Sieron’s just for good prices and high-quality food. They also knew that they’d be greeted by storeowners who were part of their neighborhood, and who welcomed them into their stores.