When William Morris opened a store at 211 S. Federal Highway, the Great Depression had been grinding on for nine years.
And The Federal Market has continued to provide for the needs of the east side neighborhood south of Lake Avenue since 1938.
Standing behind the counter, framed by cigarettes, gum and candy in his tiny cashier’s booth, owner Mike Gonzalez, a boyish-looking 33, could be mistaken for a clerk. He bought the business 6 ½ years ago, when the previous owner was having trouble making a go of it. He recently bought the property, which includes two rentals, one of which in the old days was quaintly called 211 ½ S. Federal.
Proceeds from the store, plus the rental income, almost cover the expenses of owning the building.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says.
That might well be true, but he also has been working since he was 20 and married for 10 years, with two sons. He clerks in the store half the week, to keep an eye on things and to keep his hand in the game.
He gets a steady stream of drop-in traffic in the area just south of Lake Avenue.
Except for the addition of Red Bull to the shelves, the store might look the same to a customer from almost any previous decade.
Gonzalez added a shiny tin ceiling in the store, evoking the old days.
“I’d like to freshen it up, replace the bad wood, redo the driveway, give it an updated look, but keep the rustic farmhouse type look, which I like,” he says.
He does inventory between customers. And what an inventory it is: cans of boiled peanuts, jars of cilantro relish, bread, cookies, candies, sandwiches, eggs, bacon (regular and turkey), fishing lures, cat food, baseball caps, deodorant.
Everything is neatly lined on the shelves. No dust.
A flat screen display behind the counter shows nine camera views of the tiny store. On his smart phone, he can check them from anywhere.
It’s more of a deterrent than anything else. Gonzalez estimates he might catch a shoplifter once or twice a year.
“I make it clear that you don’t come in here and disrespect (me),” says Gonzalez. “I see it all. People driving a Jag, people living on the streets. Some people come in here and they’re hungry. I won’t let nobody go hungry.”
Unless they came in earlier in the day and spent all their money on beer.
His customers arrive on foot, skateboard, bicycle, Jaguar and Ford pickup. Some breeze in so fast to pick up their daily Lotto tickets that they are little more than a blur that says, “Hi, Mike.”
There are people buying beer and cigarettes, milk and Mountain Dew, peach flavored Arizona Iced Tea and Dentyne Ice gum.
There are working men and there are men who haven’t worked in years. Some of the customers are young, some old, some covered in tattoos, some wearing swimsuits, their hair still wet from the beach. Some could use a shower and a haircut. Gonzalez greets them all with indefatigable good cheer.
One of the Federal Market’s regulars is Jimmy Williams, 75, born the same year the store opened. A wiry little guy who boxed as a youngster in a gym on Lake Avenue around the corner, he drops in several times a week.
He is the store’s historian and possibly its longest continuous customer. He points to a page in a tattered 1941 city directory that shows Morris as the owner of the store.
“This was before Wal-Mart and Kmart. It was a store for all the community,” Williams said.
In the 1940s, when he was a youngster, Williams started visiting this store, helping out his dad, who sold Holsum bread and baked goods to stores from West Palm Beach to Delray Beach.
“My daddy knew everybody,” Williams said. “On Saturdays we would take the leftover brownies and doughnuts to the children’s home on 45th Street.”
Williams buys cigarettes for his friend Bobby Clarke, who lives in a nursing home near the market. They have been friends since they were 10 years old. He also provides conversation, to shorten Clarke’s long days in the nursing home, flattened out by dementia.
Clarke can identify every single player in an old photo of the high school football team. Everyone but himself.
Williams tells him which of their friends he’s seen lately, even if he hasn’t, or tells him again about a lunch five years ago, because Clarke just likes to hear him talk.
“He’ll smoke about five cigarettes, then I kiss him on the top of his head and go home,” says Williams. “My dad used to say to me, ‘Jimmy, it’s all about the memories. You conjure the good ones.’ ”