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Leo Adam Biga: My Amazon Author’s Page

November 16, 2015 3 comments

Leo Adam Biga

My Amazon Author’s Page

Link to my page at http://www.amazon.com/Leo-Adam-Biga/e/B00E6HE46E

Leo Adam Biga
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Leo Adam Biga is a freelance cultural journalist and nonfiction book author based in his hometown of Omaha, Neb. His feature and enterprise work as an arts and culture reporter appears in several Omaha and greater Nebraska publications. His articles occasionally appear in national magazines as well.

Assignments often find him interviewing celebrities and public figures from various fields.

Every so often Biga travels to get a story. He accompanied a group of Nebraskans who bused to the Barack Obama presidential inauguration in the nation’s capital. He spent several days and nights covering Lew Hunter’s screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. He spent a week on the set of Alexander Payne’s film “Sideways” in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area. He made an eight-day Midwest baseball tour of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Most recently, he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford and Pipeline Worldwide co-founder and executive director Jamie Nollette. That overseas reporting mission was made possible by the Andy Award for international journalism that Biga received in 2015 from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, state, and national levels.

In addition to the books featured on this Amazon Author’s Page, he has several book projects in development, among them: the history of Nebraska Methodist College; a celebration of Omaha’s black sports legends; and a look at Nebraska’s rich film heritage. He also wrote the script for the documentary, “The Brandeis Store.”

Read a broad sampling of the writer’s work on his popular blog, leoadambiga.com, a gallery of his “stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.” You can follow his work there or via his Facebook page, My Inside Stories. https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga/.




Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the DowntroddenOpen Wide: Dr. Mark Manhart's Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and LifeAlexander Payne: His Journey in Film: A Reporter's Perspective, 1998 - 2012

Mom and Pop Grocery Stores

ABOUT THE BOOKS

Crossing Bridges

“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years, and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services. First in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India. Then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying.

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden is the story of Father Ken Vavrina’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him, and places that astonished him. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”

REVIEWS

A Humble Man with a Powerful Story
By Sandra Wendel on September 1, 2015
Format: Paperback

As a book editor, I find that these incredible heroes among us cross our paths rarely. I am indeed lucky to have worked with Father Ken in shaping his story, which he finally agreed to tell the world. You will enjoy his modesty and humility while serving the poorest of the poor. His story of his first days in the leper colony in Yemen is indeed compelling, as is his survival in prison in Yemen. Later, his work in Calcutta, Liberia, and Cuba made a difference.

Father Ken Vavrina
By Sandra L Vavrina on September 28, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

Crossing Bridges. Father Ken’s life is amazing! He is my husband’s cousin and performed our wedding ceremony 51 yrs ago right after he was ordained.

great book
By ken tuttle on September 1, 2015
Format: Paperback
such an amazing life story

 

OPEN WIDE

Open Wide                                                                                                                                              

By M. Marill on May 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

In people or in art, according to Dr. Mark Manhart, “You may not like nor understand everything you see, but at least you will have a truer view of all that went into making the man or the artwork.” This biographical memoir takes the reader through all of his different lives – his “open life” and his “secret life”. Manhart’s professional side finds him a highly trained dentist who is actively engaged in developing new treatments and therapies. His inner passion, which keeps him charged, is his involvement in theatre as a playwright, director, and sometimes an actor.

REVIEWS

The story about the man who has changed dentistry for the better. He can and ha helped peoples everywhere how care and nourish their teeth. His calcium therapy is preventative just as much as it is curative for many dental issues. Like those in holistic medicine who have bucked the medical organizations he has done so with the dental organization forging the way for alternative prevention and care . Check out his website at http://www.calcium therapy.com and educate yourself and try his affordable products before you dismiss this. He deserves recognition for what he has accomplished and I hope it comes to him.

The story of an innovative thinker, inventor, and healer
By Best reads on August 3, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

If you read “Open Wide,” you will understand what philosophies have made Dr. Manhart ” a die hard preservationist when it comes to saving peoples teeth…” (167), and how his brilliant invention of materials for dentistry allows him to work miracles, save peoples’ teeth that other dentists are ready to pull, and spare the pain, suffering, and expense of treatments that mainstream dentistry usually pushes. He is also a preservationist with respect to architecture, a talented playwright, actor, director, and producer, is engaged in civic affairs, and has additional wide ranging interests. If you are seeking more humane and successful dental treatments, this book and his website at http://www.calciumtherapy.com are both invaluable. If you want to read about a brilliant and iconoclastic thinker in many realms, this is also a great book. Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics, Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes (for chemistry, and for peace); Dr. Manhart’s research, discoveries, and patented materials are certainly profound enough to merit similar recognition. Unfortunately, you will also read about why dentistry as practiced in the U.S. is often not open to innovation, or able (and willing) to recognize how it has thrived from overcharging for over-treatment that sometimes causes trauma, harm, hopelessness and yet more visits to the dentist.

 

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga. –Kurt Andersen, Host of Studio 360.

Long before Alexander Payne arrived as a world-renowned filmmaker, Leo Adam Biga spotted his talent, even screening his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, at an art cinema. By the time Payne completed Citizen Ruth and prepped Election Biga made him a special focus of his journalism. Interviewing and profiling and Payne became a highlight of the writer’s work. Feeling a rapport and trust with Biga, Payne granted exclusive access to his creative process, including a week-long visit to one of his sets. Now that Payne has moved from emerging to established cinema force through a succession of critically acclaimed and popular projects—About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants—Biga has compiled his years of reporting into this book. It is the first comprehensive look anywhere at one of cinema’s most important figures. Go behind-the-scenes with the author to glimpse privileged aspects of the filmmaker at work and in private moments. The book takes the measure of Payne through Biga’s analysis, the filmmaker’s own words, and insights from some of the writer-director’s key collaborators. This must read for any casual fan or serious student of Payne provides in one volume the arc of a remarkable filmmaking journey.

REVIEWS

Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question
By Brent Spencer on November 9, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition

Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The local reporter began writing about Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career. In fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska. Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early student film of Payne’s, The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

The resulting book collects the pieces Biga has written about Payne over the years. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers got there. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. He’s presented from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Hollywood as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it’s that it can, at times, lead to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means a piece will sometimes cover the same background we’ve read in a previous piece. And some pieces were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counter-balanced by the feeling you get of seeing the growth of the artist, a life and career taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting the filmmaker to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. He talks about the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, undertaking the slow and often monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open. Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012 provides a unique portrait of the artist and detailed insights into the filmmaking process.

 

Mom and Pop Grocery Stores

Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers. Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here. At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars, one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II. The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same — to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era. From roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time. Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home. Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted. Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Author Updates

 

Books by Leo Adam Biga

“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa”

December 12, 2011 4 comments

“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores  Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa”

I contributed to a new book out by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society that is an appreciation of the Jewish Mom and Pop grocery stores that once dominated the landscape in Omaha.  From time to time I am posting an excerpt from the book to give provide a sample of the robust story it tells.  For this post I chose a front section essay I wrote about the long defunct wholesale market that operated just southeast of downtown and that today is home to the popular historic cultural district known as the Old Market.  While the market didn’t contain grocery stores, its many wholsalers serviced grocers.  It was a bustling center of commerce abd characters that is no more.

For additional information or to order a copy of the book, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpt from the book-

The Old Market: Then and Now

©by Leo Adam Biga

Omaha’s Old Market is a National Register of Historic Places district abuzz with activity. Bounded by 10th Street on the east, 13th Street on the west, and extending from Leavenworth Street on the south end to Howard Street on the north end, the character-rich area is an arts and entertainment hub. Restaurants. Speciality shops. Art galleries. Performance spaces. Many venues housed in late 19th and early 20th century warehouse buildings.

Street performers and vendors “set up shop” there. Horse-drawn carriages transport fares over cobblestone streets. Streams of shoppers, diners, bar patrons, art lovers, theatergoers, sightseers, and residents file in and out, back and forth, all day long, through the wee hours of night. Summertime finds folks relaxing at restaurant and bar patios. Fresh flowers adorn planters arranged all about the Market.

Fifty years ago and for a half-century or more before that these same streets and warehouses were equally busy, the commerce transacted there just as brisk. Only instead of trendy eateries, boutiques, galleries, and studios, the urban environs contained Omaha’s wholesale center for fresh fruit and vegetables. Whatever was in season and sellers could lay their mitts on, the market carried it. Now and then, owing to untimely droughts or freezes in prime growing areas, certain items were in short supply. During wartime, rationing made much produce scarce. But most of the time the Market offered a great variety of fresh produce at reasonable prices.

In an earlier era, the Market, along with the Jobbers Canyon complex of wholesale and mercantile warehouses, meat packers, and outfitters a bit further to the east, supplied surveyors, land agents, speculators, railroad workers, steamboat crews, military personnel, trappers, and pioneers with the stores needed for settling the West. Jobbers Canyon, however, went the way of the wrecking ball, a fate that could have easily befallen the Market if not for a few interventionists.

The Way It Was

The Omaha Wholesale Produce Market House Company was an officially incorporated consortium of wholesalers and the Omaha City Market the city designated marketplace where the local produce industry concentrated. This American equivalent of the Middle Eastern bazaar or Old World farmer’s market consisted of two fundamental parts.

Multi-story brick buildings housing warehouses, mercantiles, and offices were where the major produce wholesalers and brokers did high volume, bulk business with major buyers. A single wholesale deal might have moved 40,000 pounds of watermelons, for example. At street level, the warehouses featured a system of docks and bays where trucks carting loads of produce parked, their contents emptied out onto sidewalk pallets for immediate resell to buyers or into storage for later resell.

Perhaps the biggest Jewish wholesaler in terms of volume handled was Gilinsky Fruit Company, whose two-story warehouse and offices became home to the French Cafe. When Sam Gilinsky’s business closed in 1941 several former employees, many of them Jews, opened their own wholesale businesses and wrote their own chapters as successful Market entrepreneurs. One of Omaha’s most recognizable and nationally branded businesses, Omaha Steaks, owned by another Jewish family, the Simons, did business in the Market when still known as Table Supply Meat Company.

An open air market located in a paved lot at 11th and Jackson Street saw vendors and peddlers doing business with neighborhood grocers and retail consumers. The merchants selling there rented stalls, where they displayed their wares in bushel baskets, barrels, crates, boxes, and bags arranged on benches. The hawkers benefited from a sheet metal canopy overhead. Tarps were stretched out for additional protection. Old-timers who worked there will tell you the conditions made for long days during the heat of summer, when the canopy and tarp would get burning hot to the touch and make it like a sauna underneath. Standing on the hard cement was tough on shoes and feet.

Across from these vendors were local truck gardeners and farmers, who turned an alleyway into a market of their own, selling bed loads of produce.

These were small family businesses. Men made up the vast majority of Market workers, but some women and children worked there, too. For most, it was a humble living, but more than a few sons of immigrant vendors and peddlers went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and to enter many other professions. In this way, the Market was an avenue to the American Dream for first and second generation families here.

The marketplace attracted a small army of workers and customers. Suppliers included farmers, gardeners, and greenhouse owners. Wholesale produce dealers ranged from giant operators buying and selling in train car lots or truckloads to smaller operators. The middle men included brokers, jobbers, and distributors.

Most of the vendors and peddlers were immigrants, including Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany, along with Syrians and Italians. Yiddish was among the many languages heard wafting through the Market. The foreign-born merchants’ raised, heavily-accented voices mixed with various American accents to create a music all their own. Then there was the sonorous strain of the district’s very own Italian tenor, “Celery John” (Distefano), who would serenade the marketplace when the mood struck.

Veteran produce marketer Sam Epstein said Celery John “had a voice like you’d hear in an opera house,” adding, “It was absolutely marvelous to hear him.” Epstein said he would stand outside Celery John’s place and kibbitz as the erstwhile Caruso made up “soup bunches” and “plant boxes.” “His personality and his demeanor were just the same as his voice,” said Epstein “Just a wonderful human being.”

Don Greenberg, whose family’s wholesale Greenberg Fruit Company had a decades-long run in the Market, recalled Celery John once leading a group of workers in a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The occasion celebrated the birthday of a veteran, well-liked merchant. The guys even got up enough dough to go in on purchasing a rather extravagant gift then — a television set.

It was a place where men in smocks, aprons, overalls, or dungarees and with nicknames like Dago Pete, Crowbar Mike, Montana, Shoes, Red Wolfson, and Popeye rubbed shoulders with men in suits. Brothers George and Hymie Eisenberg became known as the Potato and Onion Kings for the considerable nationwide market share they held supplying spuds and onions to large food processors.

The Eisenbergs had a much humbler beginning though as a family of produce peddlers. Many immigrants had established routes in neighborhoods around Omaha and on back country roads, where in the early days they traveled by horse and wagon before modernizing to trucks. Peddlers often operated stalls in the Market, too. Some peddlers and vendors, like the Eisenbergs, eventually became wholesalers.

The primary buyers at the Market were grocers, restaurants, hotels, institutions, and major food processors. Just like today’s Omaha Farmers Market, the general public went to get their pick of fresh produce during the summer from the open air market that operated there. Day in, day out, the Market saw a flow of people, trucks, and goods. George Eisenberg can attest to “a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of competition” that went on.

Changing Times

The Market thrived as a produce center from at least the first decade of the 20th century, when it was incorporated and a city appointed superintendent of markets or market master put in place to collect rent, enforce rules, and settle disputes, through the late 1950s. By the early ‘60s the Market declined as wholesalers either disbanded or moved west, the peddler trade disappeared, and many neighborhood and country grocers went belly up. The emergence of supermarket chains had a ripple effect that drove the small independents out of business, thereby eating into the Market’s trade.

But the real death knell came when large grocers pooled their resources together to form their own wholesale cooperatives. The combined purchasing power of coops let them buy in huge quantities at bargain rates that smaller wholesalers and coops could not match. Grocers or supermarkets naturally bought from their own coop because they owned shares in it and any profits were returned as dividends.

The same few blocks comprising that wild and woolly marketplace then and that make up the more cultivated Old Market today were, by comparison, virtually barren of people by the mid-1960s, the huge warehouse structures largely abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The open air City Market was closed by the City of Omaha in 1964.

The overall Market district was saved from the wreckage heap by the vision and action of a family with longstanding business and property interests in the area, the Mercers, and by other enterprising sorts who despaired losing this vital swath of Omaha history.

During the late ‘60s-early ‘70s what was once the produce center of Omaha began undergoing a transformation, building by building, block by block. The renovations continued to take hold over the better part of a decade. The labor intensive, working man’s market that revolved around fruit and vegetable sales gave way to head shops, galleries, theaters, and restaurants that appealed to the counter culture and sophisticated set. What is known now as the Old Market emerged and the area gained landmark preservation and historic status designations in 1979.

By the late ‘70s, people began moving into loft-style living spaces above storefronts, an update on an old tradition that increasingly gained new traction. So many Old Market buildings have since been converted into mixed uses, with apartments and condos on the upper floors and businesses on the ground floor, that today the district is more than just a commercial center and tourist destination, but a urban residential neighborhood as well.

Not every remnant of the early Market disappeared. At least one old-line vendor, Joe Vitale, hung on through the 1990s.

Character and Characters

Old-time sellers were usually loud, animated, sometimes gruff, and by any measure assertive in trying to reel buyers in for themselves and thus steer sales away from competitors. If a vendor thought a rival was out of line or infringing on his turf or undercutting prices or, God forbid, stealing sales, there might be heated words, even fisticuffs. Customers did not always get off easy either. Some old-time vendors took exception if someone fussily handled the merchandise without purchasing or questioned the quality or price of the goods.

Sam Epstein recalled the time that Independent Fruit Company partners Sam “Red” Wolfson and Louie Siporin had just unloaded a batch of tomatoes when Tony Rotollo walked up to pick over the goods.

“Old Man Rotollo apparently asked Sam the price of tomatoes and he told Sam it was too high. Sam, who was loud and had a temper, started raving. He had a voice you could hear from miles away. Sam yelled, ‘Too high, you SOB I’m treating you right. You get out of here and don’t ever come back.’ And Louie, the refined guy of the business, came running out and said, ‘For God’s sakes, Sam, don’t talk like that out here. You gotta call him an SOB, take him in the back room.’ And Sam said, ‘He’s an SOB out here, he’s an SOB in the back room.’ Well, Old Man Rotollo went on his way and about a half hour later was back buying tomatoes from Sam, the two of them getting along just fine.”

Another hot head Epstein treaded lightly around was a banana house operator known to chase out persons he disliked with a sharp, curved banana knife.

Vendors had to be more brazen then because: (1) for most of them this was their single livelihood and so every sale mattered; and (2) most merchants followed the tradition practiced back in the Old Country, where markets were more expressive, the competition more cut throat, where decorum was put aside and survival meant outshining and outshouting the vendor next to you or across from you. You had to have some chutzpah and some get-and-up-and-go initiative in order to make it.

The give-and-take haggling, bartering, and bickering, good-natured or not, that was part and parcel of the classic marketplace is largely a thing of the past these days. For the most part, people today pay whatever price is set for goods without making a fuss. It’s all very polite, all very pleasant, all very banal.

George Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked with their father Ben in the Omaha City Market in the years before, during, and after World War II. The brothers’ father went into the wholesale business with Harry Roitstein and the Eisenberg and Roitstein Fruit Company survived into the 1950s and beyond.

One of the few other Jewish wholesalers to last that long was Greenberg Fruit Company. Don Greenberg joined his father Elmer in the family business in 1959. He said when he got involved most of the company’s buyers were small independent grocers, many of them Jewish and Italian. Even as late as ’59, Greenberg recalled, “parking places were at a premium” in the Market. Over time, the traffic trailed off, so much so that Greenberg Fruit left to build a new warehouse, in tandem with another Jewish wholesaler, Nogg Fruit Company, in southwest Omaha.

“When we moved out of the Market,” said Greenberg, “parking spaces were no longer at a premium and there were very few independent grocers left.”

The Eisenberg family’s produce dealings nearly spanned the arc of the Market, as the patriarch, Ben, went from peddler to vendor to wholesaler. Son George then took the business into an entirely new realm by specializing in the wholesale potato and onion field. He found a lucrative niche selling directly to food processors. But it all began with Ben and his horse and wagon, later his truck, and then the stalls on 11th and Jackson Street.

“My dad didn’t speak really sharp English because he came from the Ukraine. He didn’t speak any English when he got here, but he learned to speak survival English. Either you spoke the language or you starved to death. You had to make a living,” said George. “My dad was a really good salesman. He was very polite, businesslike, very fair. His word was his bond. He used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Don’t lie, cheat or steal.’ It pays off — people are happy to do business with you.”

Legacy, Heritage, History, Memories

As the proud son of a successful immigrant, Eisenberg is glad to see his old stomping grounds active again, filled with people jabbering, jostling, buying, and selling. But you cannot blame him for being a little wistful at the loss of the colorful, boisterous characters and antics that populated the Market back in the old days.

With sellers noisily touting their goods like carnival barkers, all packed tightly together in a kind of vendors row, each vying for the same finite customer base, there was an every-man-for-himself urgency to the proceedings. There was no place Eisenberg would have rather been.

“I felt that’s where all the action in Omaha was — in the Market,” he said. “I mean, people were shouting like, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, get your red, ripe and sweet watermelon.’ ‘Strawberries, strawberries, get your strawberries.’ ‘We’ve got Idaho potatoes here, 25 cents a basket.’ It was fun. They were all shouting to people walking in the Market to bring attention to their location. That was our advertisement — our voice.”

Occasionally, things would get a little too rambunctious for some tastes.

“The city had a market inspector, and he’d come down and tell us, ‘You guys are going to have it to hold it down. People are complaining that you’re making too much noise hawking the merchandise.’ Some people used to say that was the charm of the Market, yet some complained.

“So we’d tell him, ‘Well, we can’t sell the stuff unless they hear what we got to sell.’ And he’d say, ‘I know, but just keep it down.’”

Eisenberg said he and his mates would then talk in muted tones, at least while the inspector was still around, but once he went on his way they would go right back to shouting. It was the only way to be heard above the din.

 

 

Table Supply Meat Co. original location in Omaha's Old Market.:
 Table Supply Meat Company

 

 

A typical day on the Market was not your average 9-to-5 proposition. Most vendors arrived by 4 or 5 a.m. to sell to commercial buyers seeking the best, freshest picks of the day. “If we thought we were going to be busy we might open the doors at 3 a.m.,” said Don Greenberg. “It was not unusual to work until 5 or 6 in the evening.” Some wholesalers and vendors stayed even later if business was good or if they had an excess of product they wanted to turn over before the next business day.

Greenberg remembers card and dice games as popular distractions among some Market workers, who had their favorite hangouts in surrounding cafes and other creature comfort joints. Sam Epstein, whose family bought Nogg Fruit Company from Leo Nogg, recalled that the owner of Louie’s Market often sat in on a standing card game, leaving instructions that anyone who called the Market inquiring after him be told he had not been seen. Epstein recounted how a broker known to have dalliances with women at work worked out a system whereby a friend would “pound like hell” on a metal pole downstairs as a signal someone was coming to interrupt his latest conquest.

Epstein’s business dealings in the Market began as a supermarket buyer. He made the rounds down there selecting and buying quantities of produce from truck gardeners or farmers, including a Jewish man named Herman Millman. Epstein worked for Nogg for a time and later became a part owner, eventually buying him out. Epstein said he and his family kept the Nogg Fruit Company name intact because “it had 60 years of name recognition.”

He said in a market the size of Omaha’s word got around fast about who you could and could not trust in business dealings. “There’s no secrets around the Market,” Epstein said.

Everything was done on a handshake and verbal basis then. All the transactions figured in ledger books or in people’s heads.

As the independent grocers were dying off, Nogg Fruit got into the food service and frozen food business and flourished in this new niche.

The Market’s band of brothers hung on as long as they could before the business faded away. As the big operators and small entrepreneurs left, one by one, and then all together, soon only photographs, articles, and memories remained.

The brawny Industrial Era buildings that survive in new guises today are physical testament to what once went on there. But aside from a few signs on building walls, some produce scales, and maybe some hooks for hanging bunches of bananas, tangible evidence is hard to see.

If you just close your eyes, though, perhaps you can imagine it all: the dance and ritual of shipments coming and going out; displays of produce being loaded, unloaded, handled, and haggled over; the jabbering commerce playing out from pre-dawn to past dusk between men in jaunty hats, their cigarettes, cigars or pipes ablaze. It was a colorful, lively place to work in and to shop at.

And maybe, just maybe, if you happen by the Omaha Farmers Market some Saturday, in your mind’s eye you can picture an earlier scene that unfolded there, and know that all of it, past and present, is part of an unbroken line. Just like it has always been, it remains a place where people come together to buy and sell, bargain, and trade. The memory of what once was and what still is brings a smile to George Eisenberg’s face.

 

 

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Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

November 14, 2011 7 comments


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Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood.  I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them.  As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a Nebraska Jewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s.  But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book .  Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through.  I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project.  Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.

Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.

The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog.  My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here.  I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska.  A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote.  You can find that story on this blog.

Historical Society publishes grocery store history

by Rita Shelley

11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press

Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.

South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.

Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.

 

 

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“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.

Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).

 

 

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The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.

For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpts from the book-

©by Leo Adam Biga

Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores                                                                                Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

 

 

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Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.

Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.

At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.

The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.

Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.

Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.

Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.

Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).

Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.

For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.

In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.

Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.

Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.

Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.

Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.

Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.

With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.

Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.

It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.

One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.

 

 

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