A drive down Milwaukee’s North Sixth Street between Pleasant Street and McKinley Boulevard reveals nothing overtly remarkable. Sixth Street seems little more than a no-man’s land connecting downtown and points north, a wide expanse of four-lane road offering a quieter alternative to I-43, especially during rush hour.
PictureGrafman Grocery on 6th & Vliet, 1929
To Anita Chudnow, this stretch of Sixth Street was home for the first 12 years of her life. Her father, Henry Grafman, owned and operated a grocery Store at 603 W. Vliet Street. Grocery stores of the 1920s and 1930s tended to be less than a thousand square feet and focused on one aspect of food retailing in order to set themselves apart from all the other neighborhood stores. Many were family businesses which limited the expense of hiring employees and personalized the service given to the customers. 

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.

PictureHenry Grafman & Delivery Truck, 1929
The area was populated by hardworking immigrants – mostly Greeks, Slavs, Russians, Germans, Jews and a few Southern Blacks – and the Grafmans and Harts fit right in with them. Other family members also pitched in. The store was open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Two days a year – Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – were the only days the shop was shuttered.

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.

PictureGrocery Store Customer Account Books
Like many retail stores of the era local citizens known to the owners could make purchases on credit, or on the book, and pay off the debt at the end of the month or on pay day. This was especially convenient for customers during the Great Depression as jobs and income became harder to come by. Many customers chose to buy “on the book,” the equivalent of today’s credit, with the Grafmans, so they often had to wait for cash to come in. The fairness they practiced in their dealings was returned in kind. The business prospered.

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. 

For Anita, in those days, summer meant watermelon. She recalls piles and piles of watermelons in front of the store, watermelons that no one stole – even when left outside overnight. She also remembers the samples her father would hand out. Each morning he'd place a large melon on the counter of the store and have at it with an enormous sharpened knife.
  “He’d cut the melon into quarters and then slice it up as I was waiting for it.”
She also remembers the holiday seasons, and the special items associated with each. 
  “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.”
PictureGrafman Advertising Calendars, c. 1920
The Christmas season was also the time when Henry handed out the fancy calendars he had printed up each year, calendars he kept in the back of the store and only gave to special customers.

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.

PictureSisters Anita & Harriet Grafman
There were downsides to having parents who owned a grocery store, but the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages for the Grafman girls. That was mostly due to the family’s values. The store wasn’t a place where Mom, Dad and the grandparents disappeared to and children weren’t allowed. It was a family business in the best sense of the word, the hearth around which the family gathered. The girls ate breakfast at home and lunches at school when they were old enough, but many family meals were eaten in the store’s back room. Jennie and Henry were available to help their daughters with homework, and the girls were, in turn, made to understand that their help in the store was – although not a regular occurrence with prescribed hours and paychecks – expected, valued and appreciated. It gave the girls a sense of purpose and security they may not have otherwise gotten, and drew them closer to each other and their parents.

“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.”
A heart problem and a leg injury forced Henry to sell the store in 1938. He worked there part-time until 1947, when he retired in order to spend more time tending to the rental properties he’d bought before the Depression.

Edited by Bryn Cooley,
Valparaiso University History Major
&
Edited by Joel Willems,
Curator, Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear