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Time Traveling to the Thrifty Food Market

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas stand in front of their grocery store, The Thrifty Food Market, in 1972.

A few weeks ago I attended a First Friday event at Rebus Works, a small art gallery in Boylan Heights. As I walked through the crowded room inspecting the artwork, glass of wine in hand, my footsteps across the creaky, worn wood floors started to echo in my ears. The chit-chat of the crowd seemed to fade away, and my mind began to drift back to a time that existed more than 35 years ago when the gallery space was occupied by a neighborhood grocery called The Thrifty Food Market. It was a simpler, different sort of time.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas had owned and operated the little grocery store at the western terminus of the Martin St. viaduct since 1937. I lived in Boylan Heights for several years in the early 1970s and got to know the Thomases well. They were a kindly older couple whom I always thought of back then as the grandparents of Boylan Heights. In those days I lived with a group of friends in a house that many of our neighbors regarded with disdain as a “hippie house.” But not the Thomases. They took a liking to us, — well, actually, there was no one they didn’t like — and we certainly liked them.

This is a view of the back of the Thrifty Food Market as seen from my front porch. The Martin St. viaduct is on the right and the old Boylan Ave. bridge can be seen in the background on the left. The painted wall sign reads: “Long Meadow Milk.”

The Thrifty Food Market possessed a certain nostalgic charm that has long-since passed from Raleigh’s urban scene. Upon entering the store through the screen door, being careful not to let it slam behind you, Mrs. Thomas would  greet her customers from behind the linoleum-topped wooden checkout counter on which sat one of those old-fashioned mechanical cash registers. Usually the delivery boy, Kenny, would be stationed by the counter, ready to make his deliveries on his bicycle with a large wire basket affixed to the front.

Mr. Thomas managed the meat counter in the back of the store. An oversized wheel of ‘hoop cheese’ always sat on top of the big glass-fronted enameled metal counter.  Mr. Thomas would cut generous slabs from it and wrap them up in white butcher’s paper. Open shelves of canned goods lined the walls. There was also a small produce bin with offerings such as onions, potatoes and collards.

The Thomases stocked all the basics — flour, milk, bread, eggs, and the like. But, as Mr. and Mrs. Thomas were devout Southern Baptists, the one thing you couldn’t buy at the Thrifty Food Market was beer — you had to walk up to Hillsboro St. to the Friendly Fruit Store to get that particular beverage.

The worn, creaky oiled-wood floors of the Thrifty Food Market were shiny from the thousands of feet that had trod upon them over the decades. An old oil heater used for winter warmth sat in the middle of the room. There was no air conditioning in the summer, but somehow the store seemed always to be cool inside, even on the hottest days. It was not unusual to find Mrs. Thomas engaged in casual conversation with a neighborhood resident or two. There was never any hurry at the Thrifty Food Market, and it seems to me now as if time were standing still.

But, as we all know, time does not stand still. Time moves relentlessly forward as it rushes into unforgiving memory. After 35 years of service to the community, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas retired from shop keeping in 1972. Another neighborhood grocery subsequently occupied the space for a few years, but that too, is now long gone.

As I continued to meander around the art gallery the echo from my footsteps began to mingle with the chattering voices of the people in the room, and my mental images of the Thrifty Food Market faded into the works of art hanging before me on the walls. Or maybe it was just the wine talking to me, as I glanced down and saw that my glass was empty.

This is the front door of The Thrifty Food Market, now home to Rebus Works art gallery. The screen door, canvas awning, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas are long gone.

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