The Most-Enduring Mom 'n Pop Business in the Old Third Ward: Their Story

by Nat Bodian


Of all the mom 'n pop businesses that once existed in Newark's old Third Ward, none had a longer run than Kessler's Spruce Street Grocery, located at 157 Spruce Street.

The store was in a three-story wood-frame building, with two cold water flats above it. It was in mid-block between Barclay and Broome Streets, and just around the corner from the 12-family tenement at 54 Barclay where I was born in 1921.

Aunt was Earlier Owner

In 1916, the store was owned by the widowed Yenta Kessler, an aunt of Israel Kessler. To help her run the store, she employed her nephew, Israel, who with his wife, Yetta, had emigrated from Stanislaus in Galicia, in the early years of the 20th century, and had settled in Newark near the store.

Israel Kessler had virtually run the store as an employee of his aunt in what was then a heavily populated Jewish neighborhood. With the passing of his aunt in 1920, Israel became the store's proprietor and operated it together with his wife. They lived in the back of the store in 2 1/2 rooms.

Seven-Day Store Operation

Israel and his wife eked out a bare living in the 25 x 30 foot store, although they kept the doors open for business from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., seven days a week.

Despite their long hours in the store, the Kesslers maintained an active social life, frequently entertaining friends, landsleit (countrymen) , and relatives around the kitchen table in the back of the store.

As their family continued to grow to four sons, the Kesslers subsequently also occupied the flat above the store, and converted it into bedrooms for the children.

Although both spoke English fairly well, they conversed in Yiddish, and usually interlaced their social conversations with a mixture of Yiddish and English.

Israel's Religious Observance

While the grocery was open seven days a week, Israel remained a pious Jew. He would leave his wife in charge when he attended religious services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings at the nearby Brisker Shule on Prince Street. He always wore a yarmulka (skullcap) while working in the store.

Israel also had carpentry skills, and he would occasionally leave the store to take on small carpentry jobs for extra funds for his growing family.

In the 1920s and 1930s while the Third Ward was still heavily Jewish, Yetta would occasionally offer home-made specialties such as borsht, or strudel, hand-rolled, and baked in her kitchen Thatcher oven.

During those years that they catered mainly to Jewish customers, the Kesslers also sold fruits and vegetables from wooden stands fronting the store windows on the sidewalk.

When the neighborhood changed, as the Jews moved out of the Third Ward, and their customers were mostly black, the sidewalk stands were removed. The only outdoor displays were six-foot tall stalks of sugar cane, which many of their customers favored.

Big 'Trust' Business that Paid Off

In the third and fourth decades of their Spruce Street business operation, the 1940s and 1950s, the Kesslers built up a large 'trust' business where purchases were put on the book to be paid later.

From time to time in their later years in the business, a former customer would come into the store and hand the Kesslers money that they said they owed from years back. More often than not, the Kesslers didn't recall the debt or recognize them.

The fact that the Kesslers trusted their neighborhood patrons paid off for them during the 1967 race riots. The Kesslers came through the riots without trouble, thanks to their store being protected by neighborhood residents, many of them whom they had trusted.

Kessler's Nest Emptied; Sons Thrive

As the Kesslers went into the fifth decade of their store's operation in the same 157 Spruce Street premises, the four Kessler children, all sons, had grown to maturity and achieved success in varied careers.

Son Erwin was an accomplished pianist and band leader. His Erwin Kent Orchestra played in the Chanticler and other night spots, at social engagements, and on cruise ships.

Son Sam had become a successful accountant.

Son Jerry had become a concert-quality violinist and entertained at social events and on cruise ships.

Son Jack became a pharmacist, and for a time operated his own pharmacy on Watson and Jeliff Avenues. He then went back to law school and became an attorney. He subsequently became a specialist in pharmaceutical law and wound up as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry in Washington.

Two of Jack's sons followed their father's early footsteps and became pharmacists. They jointly operate a drug store in a Newark suburb.

Kessler's Sell Business, Retire

In 1968, forty eight years after they became proprietors of the 157 spruce Street grocery, with their four sons all well established and on their own, the Kesslers sold their business to a black friend from the Spruce Street neighborhood and went into retirement.

The Kesslers lived out the remaining years of their lives in an apartment on Custer Place near Weequahic Park.

Israel Kessler died in the mid 1970s. Yetta Kessler died in the mid 1980s.

The are buried in Newark, in the McClellan Street Cemetery.


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: