Harry Taylor looked the part of an old-fashioned grocer. About five feet ten, he was bald except for a tuft of hair hanging over his forehead. He wore the same kinds of clothes every day: a gray or white long-sleeved dress shirt, a butcher’s apron embossed with “America’s Cup Coffee,” and a black leather bow tie. In the corner of his mouth, he clinched a King Edward cigar, seldom smoked but often chewed.
Harry looked comfortable, standing behind the meat counter grinding lean beef or greeting customers in the produce department, whether they were rich or poor, young or old. With some, he passed the time of day; with others, he’d share a story. It was an era, long gone, when everyone knew his grocer, and he knew his customers. As they talked, he maintained eye contact with them while arranging bright red tomatoes in perfect rows or removing bruised peaches before a customer could see them. Harry Taylor’s philosophy was simple: quality was more important than price.
Born in 1908 in Shinntown, Illinois, Harry Taylor was the son of Arthur Taylor, a happy- go-lucky itinerate businessman, who played the guitar and piano by ear in a dance band on weekends in small towns throughout Central Illinois. Life was too important to take it too seriously. Over the years, Arthur moved from one business to another – running a Standard station where he pumped gas for 16 cents a gallon, a movie theatre where feature films cost a nickel, a Vehle car dealership (look-alike Model T’s assembled by John Deere), and finally a series of little grocery stores.
The first was a one-room store in Shinntown, the second a little larger one in Yates City three miles away, and finally one in Elmwood, a town of 2,000 with ten grocery stores, meat markets, and produce stands at that time. It opened in 1927 as Taylor and Son Grocery, continued in 1935 as the Penny Grocery when Harry took over, and the Penny Super Market in about 1950, when the store became self-service. It now covered three buildings.
Harry’s success rested on attention to detail. For example, he refused to buy his produce and meat over the phone without seeing the merchandise. Instead, from 1927 until 1962 when he retired, he drove his old green Ford truck twenty miles down Illinois Route 8 every Monday, Thursday and Friday afternoon to Peoria, the nearest city of any size, where he hand-picked sides of beef at Armour and Company and fresh fruits and vegetables from produce houses like Luthy Brothers and Leu Produce. He walked through the “coolers,” opening boxes of tomatoes and oranges, celery and peaches, and looking through several layers to make sure nothing was too green or too ripe. As a result, customers could always find cheaper strawberries somewhere, but not better ones.
Harry had a special way with his employees and customers. They were not hired help; they were friends. Over the years, literally dozens of high school students worked at the store, stocking shelves, unloading semis filled with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Domino Sugar, and carrying big sacks of groceries to customers’ cars. (Twenty dollars worth of groceries would completely fill the back seat of a 1945 Nash Rambler.) These minimum-wage jobs helped buy used cars, paid for some college tuition, and even supplemented family budgets.
Once they had proven themselves at work, Harry trusted these young people, and they treated him accordingly. He attended their graduations, slipped an extra $1 for a date in their pay envelopes, and he and his wife occasionally took them into their home when a need arose. As Mary, a former clerk, said, “I’m sure there would have been a good many more empty stomachs in our family if it weren’t for the little sacks of bruised peaches or the dented cans Harry tucked under my arm as I left work.” Dick, a former stock boy and retired college professor remarked, “When my own father died, while working at the store during high school, Harry became my father, and thirty years later, he remained one of the most important influences in my life. I learned more about philosophy and psychology from him, sacking potatoes, than I did earning a Ph.D.”
The Penny Super Market operated at a time when customers bought groceries with cash, bartered with fresh eggs, or sought credit. No credit application was required. The customer gathered his purchases in a shopping cart and took them to Harry’s office (called the “Back Room”) where he listed each item on a duplicating ledger. Then, reaching into his trousers for his billfold, he’d count out sufficient fives and tens to cover the purchase. The customer would push his cart to the checkout lane where he used Harry’s money to pay the bill. That simple transaction left an unforgettable picture in the borrower’s mind. He didn’t owe money to the Penny Super Market, but to the little bald-headed guy in the black bow tie.
Although a very successful small town grocer, Harry was too sensitive, too insecure, to be what we would ever call a community leader. He was never mayor or city councilman, never ran for school board, never served on the bank board. Figuratively, he generally had a part in the play, but never the lead. If asked to speak before a small audience, he would have had trouble finding the right words. In a way, Harry was best one-on-one, working with carry-out boys, helping an unemployed factory worker feed his family and providing the best food for his customers at the fairest price. I should know: Harry K. Taylor was my father.
Karl K. Taylor
May 12, 2007