Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Human Interest

Things that aren't there anymore: A visit to St. Petersburg's Sunshine City Market (October 1959)

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By the end of 1957, the Sunshine City Market was the last remaining grocery store in downtown St. Petersburg, having outlasted competitors such as Annan's Market, Central Market and the Manhattan Market.

On October 18, 1959, the St. Petersburg Times published an article on the Sunshine City Market in its Sunday Magazine section. The article was written by Times staff writer Lorna Carroll and featured some wonderful photography from Times staff photographer Bob Moreland. It's a chance to step back in time and get a glimpse of day-to-day life in old St. Petersburg. We hope you enjoy it.

'Sunshine City', a quaint, old grocery store nestled among modern mercantile giants, brings back a touch of yesterday. It's downtown St. Petersburg's . . .

last of the old-time markets

By Lorna Carroll, Times Staff Writer

Rivers Peoples Jr. watched the woman probe the mound of bananas.

"These any good?" she asked, lifting a bunch.

"Y-e-e-s-s Ma'm," said Rivers emphatically. "I X-rayed them this morning."

Rivers Peoples Jr. is long-time handyman of the Sunshine City Market, 252 Central Ave., last remaining neighborhood market in downtown St. Petersburg.

His good-natured jokes are part of the relaxed and pleasant atmosphere which has made this old market a stopping-shopping place ever since it became the property of a family threesome named Harris 20 years ago.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Rivers Peoples Jr. has been handyman and store jokester for 16 years.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: The Harrises, sister Dorothy, brother Justin and mother Blanche, have created a cheerful, little world behind this old store front.

No longer is there sawdust on the floor and the crackers do not come in barrels, but it still maintains the nostalgic atmosphere of the markets of yesteryear.

Progress has poked its finger among the apple boxes, the unrefrigerated vegetable bins, the crates piled high and added a sterile white meat counter and deep freezes.

The market's owners are gray-haired Mrs. Blanche Harris, her son, Justin, and daughter Dorothy.

Rivers may put the shine on the apples; Justin the trim look to the shelves, and Dorothy the clink clink to the cash register, but Mrs. Harris puts the sparkle in the store.

At 87, she is custodian of the cookie-cracker department and the customers' confidante. She's an authority on baseball, dog racing and wrestling. Her customers call her "Mother," even though some may rate her in age.

"Mother, I haven't been felling so well lately," said an old lady recently" "Do you think one egg a day would help?"

Mrs. Harris goes along with the tide. Definitely an egg would help, she agrees, and maybe a little look-see at the Municipal Pier's nightly variety show . . . lots of people there, things to do and see.

"So many of my customers," she explains, are lonely, elderly people, Their children just don't want them when they get old, so they send them down here, where the climate will be good for them. Each month they mail them a check, but that doesn't help the loneliness."

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Blanche Harris is matriarch of the market and custodian of cookies and crackers.

Many of the customers are retired couples, many are widows and widowers living close by in small rooms or in hotels. As a rule they don't buy much, just enough to cook breakfast on a hot plate in their rooms.

They leave with their little brown paper bags and sit on the green benches outside the store for a chat with other customers.

Clink, clink. clink goes the cash register inside. Dorothy packs the bags expertly, pausing now and then to explain that, "Avocados are not for cooking." "Yes, there's a haberdashery up the street." "No, the Saints baseball team won't play tonight." "Yes, your eye medicine certainly is working fine." "Yes, we have fallout in Florida, too; not much, thank goodness." "Sure, I've a good recipe for chocolate cake. I'll give it to you." She's cashier plus information desk.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Dorothy presides over the cash register, sends customers smiling on their way.

Justin, the manager, goes from customer to customer in a genial effort to serve. Sometimes he lifts a cracker box crate for his mother or helps Dorothy pack groceries or takes a broom from Rivers and starts sweeping the store himself. Like his mother and Dorothy, he keeps up a stream of friendly chatter.

He talks to customer Leon Yonders, leisuring over a Coke. Leon has held the world championship in pocket billiards since 1939. Still is champ, he says.

"Whatdoyuhknow!" explodes Justin admiringly.

He goes over to the Lady in White who floats in as she does almost every day. She wears a braided white suit, a frothy white bow at her throat and a white pillbox on her head. She drifts from shelf to shelf, bin to bin, seeking, selecting. Justin stands by to help.

When an old-timer complains of not being able to eat solid food because of his "choppers", Justin motions him to the rows of baby foods. Doctors recommend them, he counsels sympathetically.

Since the Harrises purchased the market a score of years ago, Justin has had no vacation.

"I take a long lunch hour every day. I'd rather vacation that way," he says.

Justin did a two-and-a-half-year stint with the Seabees during World War II, serving as ship's cook, first in the New Hebrides and Admiralty Islands. While he was away, Mother Harris and Dorothy ran the market.

Preparing food was nothing new to Justin whose father, A. H. Harris, had owned a highly successful candy and soda fountain business in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I got my training under good men and knew the score when we came to St. Petersburg," Justin says. "That was about 34 years ago, after father's death."

BOB MORELAND | Times

Unpublished photo: Justin Harris (left) visits with a customer at the Sunshine City Market.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Justin is often called upon to moderate discussions. Here he makes a point to Tom Fisher (left) and Leon Yonders.

The Harris threesome opened a soda fountain in Pasadena, calling it the Winter Garden. It was a fine place and immediately drew customers. They added a grocery and meat market. People came from all over the city to trade. At the height of their success, they sold out and for the next two-and-a-half years loafed.

But the Harrises couldn't remain idle. They began to look for a new business location. The big Manhattan Market had failed and the Family Food Store next to it wasn't in much better shape. Undaunted, they bought out the food store, spruced it up with some of the shelving from the closed Manhattan, renamed It Sunshine City Market and doused it with their special brand of friendliness.

"We really had to start from scratch," says Mrs. Harris. "We kept our prices reasonable (and still do), realizing many of our customers were pensioners and could make only penny-pinching purchases."

"In those days," she says, "lettuce, a great big, really pretty head, cost 10 cents Extra nice tomatoes were five cents, a pound of potatoes three and a pound of onions five cents. Boxes of Uneeda Biscuits were sold xix-for-a-quarter. Coffee, all brands, was 19-cents-a-pound. We sold bread at nine cents-a-loaf. Five pounds of flour cost 25 cents; big cans of milk were five cents and little ones two for five cents. Tall cans of salmon and corn beef cost 19 cents.

"Today, our purchases still are small but steady," Mrs. Harris declares. "We serve about a thousand customers a day during the winter season."

What do some of the customers think of the Sunshine City Market?

Mrs. Martha Naegele, 327 3rd Ave N., says it's like a hometown store, so neighborly.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Unpublished photo: Mrs. Martha Naegele, a customer at the Sunshine City Market.

Mrs. Hazel Coleman, 401 3rd St S., declares she has traded there 12 years because the owners are especially pleasant and courteous.

Mrs. Lucille Riser, 414 Grove St., adds, "There's always a friendly greeting at the market for everyone."

Tom Fisher, who lives in a downtown hotel and works at the Soreno in the winter, doesn't know what he'd do if the market weren't close at his elbow.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Grocery stores don't live by bread alone. Sprightly conversation is a bonus here. (Additional caption info: Customers Leon Yonders, left, and Tom Fisher chat while shopping at the store.)

Says Mrs. J. D. Bell, 250 4th Ave. N., "If the market ever closed, it would be sorely missed. It's so full of fun, I call it the 'Friendship Store'."

She crosses the room to the vegetable bin and addresses Rivers Peoples Jr.

"When will these tomatoes be ripe?" she asks, eyeing a basketful.

"Tuesday morning at 8 p.m. sharp. Y-e-e-s-s, Ma'm," he replies with his infectious grin.

The whole store joins in the laughter.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Unpublished photo: A customer peruses the shelves at the Sunshine City Market.

BOB MORELAND | Times

Original published caption: Meat refrigerators are among the few concessions to progress at this store.

Visit the Times image archive to license or purchase a reprint of any of the images shown above.

View this article as it was originally published in the October 18, 1959 edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

You'll find photo galleries and more at All Eyes, the photography and visual journalism blog of the Tampa Bay Times.

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