Monday, November 27, 2006

Old-fashioned general store re-opens in Lower Saucon

You push open the wood door of A.L. Bergstresser & Son and see the gouged plank floor, the four porcelain stools and the odd assortment of boots, farmer's overalls, Comet and pretzels behind the counter. You're mesmerized.

It's overwhelming. The nostalgia of it all.

Then you begin to notice the warmth, not from the radiators along the walls, but from the conversation. And so you order a $3 sandwich and cup of coffee to listen. Eventually, you talk too, savoring the same time-warp feeling of community that keeps Woody Eyer coming back three to four times a week to the recently reopened general store, a Pennsylvania Dutch landmark at an out-of-the-way crossroads in Lower Saucon Township.

''It's a good-old-fashioned country store,'' Eyer, of Lower Saucon, said last Sunday over black coffee and a doughnut with his friend, Jerry Flank, 66.

Welcome back to A.L. Bergstresser & Son, a 103-year-old institution commonly known as Bergy's Mall at Lower Saucon and Wassergass roads. After a four-year hiatus, Bergy's Mall is up and running again, albeit as a slimmed-down, tidier version of the general store/social hub Alfred L. Bergstresser started when he bought the building from Jacob C. Wasser the same year the Wright brothers learned to fly in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

''It's a good place to have a conversation,'' said Flank, of Williams Township.

Most customers are long-time residents and newcomers who are willing to pay a little more for a gallon of milk at Bergy's Mall than drive more than six miles back and forth from the hilly hamlet of Wassergass to the Giant supermarket on congested Route 412 in the township. Some customers are just passersby too, such as Elisabeth Ruzicka-Dempsey, who couldn't help but sample the store's rustic atmosphere — and odd merchandise — from a bygone era.

''We're on our way to Hellertown to pick up an organic turkey for Thanksgiving,'' said Ruzicka-Dempsey, 60, of Milford, Hunterdon County, as her husband, Thomas Federowicz, a carpenter by trade, admired the building's rustic authenticity. ''We've driven by here numerous times and we saw that it was open today.''

''I'm amazed that the original fixtures are still here and I hope they don't change anything,'' Federowicz said, gazing at the cabinetry, counters and enamel pots. ''Everything that is old is new again.''

Not quite.

The store is not the same as it once was, from the horse-and-buggy days of 1903 on up until the end of the 20th century. The gas pumps are gone from the tiny front parking lot. So too is the boxed chaos the Bergstressers used for generations to organize their wares.

For decades, you could buy chicken feed, fertilizer, pots and pans, penny candy, molasses, bullets, fan belts, ladies shoes, hats of every shape and size, and big fat $1.50 Bergy sandwiches — a quarter-pound of lunch meat and one slice of cheese on white bread — that were a steelworker's delight. Everything but the meat was in boxes.

So much stuff was stacked in the store, locals began calling it Bergy's Mall in the 1970s. Customers designed T-shirts. In about 1980, a now-deceased local pub owner penned a song in tribute to the orderly mess.

Bill Bergstresser ran the store just like that from the time his father, John, died on Nov. 29, 1985, until 2002, when a Rhode Island antique dealer moved in and cleaned up. The business didn't work. The locals never liked it. It wasn't Bergy's.

As time passed, Erin Leidich grew sad at the sight of the shuttered building. David Leidich, 38, grew annoyed because he had to drive to Route 412 for groceries.

''It used to be the hub of the community,'' said Erin Leidich, 36, a Chester County native who fell in love with Bergy's Mall when she and her husband bought a house down the road. ''It was just kind of sad to see it dark and quiet.''

So they struck a deal with the Bergstressers.

''We've known David since he was little,'' said Donna Bergstresser, 56. ''When he approached us, Bill said, 'What do you think?' and I said, 'Let's go for it.'''

Nowadays, you will not find bullets or feed in the store. Erin and David Leidich's daughters, Maisie, 4, and Cate, 2, play there while their mom and grandpa work. Northampton County Community College students stand around at night for wine-tasting classes, and other social events are planned too as the store's food and beverage list grows with Monday's delivery of a full lunchmeat counter.

But you can still find vintage overalls, boots and Brooklyn — not Los Angeles — Dodgers baseball hats for sale alongside the inexpensive coffee and sandwiches and local and out-of-town newspapers. The Leidich family knows Lower Saucon is not the farming community it once was. But if they keep the history and friendship just right, they hope Derstine and others continue to come as much for A.L. Bergstresser & Son's past as they will for their own future.

''You don't see a lot of these places anymore,'' Flank said. ''You can take your time here.''

Pass the molasses, please.

More here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I grew up maybe a mile away from Bergy's and used to save my toothfairy money to go get candy from there. I remember being down in the basement while my dad searched those boxes for a pair of rubber over-shoes in his size. My grandmother used to get molasses there as well. I stumbled over this while looking for a picture of one of those t-shirts, but this is the best I've found so far. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!