An Era Gone By

First it was the Archway Cookies. Now it’s the place where I had my first job. Each week on the news we hear of store after store closing their doors. Family owned businesses whose establishments are icons in small towns and neighborhoods are closing as well. I am saddened to hear that Whiting News Company is no exception. This company served the residents of Whiting for over 100 years. This is where I had my first job.

Many of you are probably wondering what is a Whiting News Company? Well I’m going to take an enjoyable trip down memory lane and tell you all about it. Keep in mind what I am describing took place in 1981 through 1987. Over the years the company had to change with the times, so a lot of the things I did no longer were done. This was a family owned company where families worked. That is how I got my job. Both my brothers and sister worked there before me. When I was there we sold newspapers like the local Hammond Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Whiting News was the place where you ordered your home delivery of these newspapers. So they also employed paperboys. The store also sold office supplies, party supplies, greeting cards, boxed Fannie May Candy and had a HUGE candy counter. Well…HUGE to maybe a 4-year old…fairly large to the average adult. We sold penny candy, when it actually cost a penny. We had boxes of Swedish Fish that stood open on the lower shelves of the candy counter. That way a kid could help himself to as many as he could fit in the little brown paper bag he was given to hold his treasures. Also on the shelves of the candy counter were all the other penny candy we all grew to love; Sixlets, Mary Jane’s, Bazooka Gum, Smarties, Laffy Taffy, Hot Dog Gum, Jolly Ranchers and my favorite Flying Saucers. For ten cents you could get a small box of Lemon Heads, Red Hots, Jawbreakers, or Boston Baked Beans. We had every candy bar imaginable including Zagnut, Clark Bars, Marathon Bars, Zero Bars and my all-time favorite Mallo Cups. At the top of the counter was a clear plastic container that housed individually wrapped marshmallow ice cream cones. We had something for everyone. Lifesavers, Dentyne Gum, Bubbalicious Gum, Mentos, and something called Chowards Scented Gum that was in a purple box and smelled like violets. It was violet flavored gum, can’t say that I ever tried it. As a clerk, we kept the trays and boxes full from stock we kept stored behind the counter. If we ran out of an item, there was a piece of cardboard taped up behind the counter and we would just write down what we needed, like M&M’s, Hershey Bar or simply red fish. No fancy order forms or product numbers. Our boss then took the list each week and ordered what we needed. We as workers could eat whatever we wanted. It became a natural reflex to grab a fish every time you passed the counter.

There were always three of us high school girls working, along with an older lady named Sophie who worked on the “card side”. She was in charge of all the greeting cards. One of the girls would work in the office and the other two would work up front helping customers. Even though we sold office supplies, we never took note pads off the shelf to use. There were always these cut up scraps of paper for us to use. Instead of throwing used paper out, we cut them into small pieces and used them for notes. We were able to use the pens though, but only if one had run out of ink. So when we came into work, the two of us working up front would decide who would “do shelves”. That meant we took a couple of the scrap pieces of paper and would walk up and down the aisles jotting down what we needed to restock. All the stock was stored in the basement. Oh….the basement. It had very low ceilings. Everyone had to duck walking down there, especially around the light bulbs. Though, many a time I did hit my head on one of those!! OUCH!!

This was a place and time that didn’t have computers. We used a newer cash register, but we had to know how to count change. We were not allowed to use the function on the register that did it for us. This was beneficial because the cash registers in the office and on the card side were older models and when we filled in back in those areas, we needed to know how to give change.

All of us “girls” that worked there came directly from school. One of the things we didn’t particularly like was the dress code, no jeans!! We could wear pants, but they could not resemble denim in any way. This was enforced by the owner’s wife, Kitty, who was dressed meticulously. Every day she wore a suit or a nice blouse, skirt and usually pearls. I guess enforced is a strong word for such a petite woman. It’s just that when you were hired in there, she told you about the dress code, and you didn’t try to undermine her authority. Kitty worked in the office and on the card side. She was the one that kept us girls in line. We were not allowed to just stand around. Definitely could not stand around talking to one another. We had to straighten shelves or straighten the cards or stock the merchandise. She always kept her eye on us. Around the holidays, we kept busy by gift-wrapping the boxes of Fannie May Candy that we stored in the freezer. That was one of my favorite jobs. We had this huge roll of wrapping paper under the counter, and you pulled out the amount you needed and tore it against the straight edge attached to the roll. We also had these large tape dispensers where you pushed on a lever and tape was dispensed. We would wrap quite a few boxes at a time; these were big sellers especially around the holidays. I only worked with Kitty for a couple of years. Even after she was gone, we kept up her high standard, kept busy, and dressed nicely for work.

When I think back of the records we kept without a computer, still boggles my mind!! When the bundles of newspapers came in, a guy named Dutch would know exactly how to distribute them. I couldn’t tell you how many came in, but it was a lot. We supplied the papers to all the local stores to sell and for the people in town who had home delivery. All of the information Dutch needed was written on cardboard pieces, in pencil, and slid into these makeshift clipboards with plastic covers. The “guys” that worked at Whiting News drove the vans that delivered the bundles of papers to the stores and to the different homes for the paperboys to deliver. This is what my brothers did. This of course was after they had been paperboys.

I don’t remember what each paperboy received to let them know where to deliver the papers. Each route had a number and encompassed certain areas of the town. I do remember early Sunday morning waking up to help my brothers “stuff” the papers with all the inserts, roll them up and put them in a plastic bag or put a rubber band around them. It was usually still dark out. My dad usually drove them on Sundays since the papers were thicker. I also remember how black your hands would get from the newspaper ink, and the smell of it.

To keep track of the customers for home delivery, we had these wooden file boxes that held the large index cards of each customer’s account. We used a typewriter and typed their name, address and phone number at the top of the card. Their monthly payments, however, were written in pencil. Each month we would take the cards, letter by letter, and would prepare the bills to be sent out. We had little green slips, and in pencil, we would hand write the information for each customer. We then stuffed them in window envelopes and sent them out. I was probably one of the few that really enjoyed doing this. I love to write. It was done at the same time every month, so on those days I looked forward to going to work. Once the bills were sent out, we then took the cards out again, customer by customer and wrote on the index card the next billing cycle dates. When payments or customers came, we would pull their card and write down that they paid for that cycle. This was the only place we had all this information. So each night when we closed the office, these file boxes were stored in the metal safe. By storing them in the safe each night, allowed them to withstand the fire that broke out in downtown Whiting. We lost a couple of stores that day, but Whiting News only suffered water and smoke damage, mainly in the front of the store.

When I was there, the owner and his son ran the store. But it was John, the owner, who always kept us on our toes. He was an older gentleman and did things his way, but had a sharp business mind. All his work was done in pencil and he would use the same one until it was so tiny. But I tell you what, that tiny pencil would fly across the paper to add things up. John always kept after us to stay busy. He had these funny ways of saying what he wanted us to do, which you caught on to quickly. With all the newspapers we sold, there were always little bits of paper on the floor, and we had a little push broom to get them up. If we didn’t get to them before John saw them, he would walk by and say something like, “there’s some snails by the front door.” That meant we needed to sweep them up. Then there were these rare times when he would pull out his harmonica and just start playing. This of course was when there were few customers in the store. He would then end abruptly and with half a smile and a twinkle in his eye he would make sure we all got back to work. He was pretty good too.

The people I have told you about have long been gone, but their lessons have stayed with me. This weekend, Jay, the son, will close the doors and probably begin his well-deserved retirement. I don’t want to think it’s closing due to the recession. I would rather think it’s due to an era gone by.