Pathmark’s Passing Leaves Pangs For the People Who Stock Its Shelves

Writer James H. Burns bids farewell to Pathmark. (Photo credit: Matthew Rutledge/Flickr)

When the news hit this summer that many Pathmark stores would be closing as part of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company’s bankruptcy, I was stunned, as most here were.

For decades the supermarket has been part of our lives on Long Island. And I’m old enough to remember when the store in Franklin Square opened in the late 1960s.

But, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, I can’t feel any nostalgia for the place.

Maybe that’s because it’s always been there. Or because, somewhere deep in my cranium, I can remember it meant as a boy that my Mom and I were no longer going to be making trips to Hills Supermarket on Franklin Avenue, which ultimately had to close down, or the A&P on Dutch Broadway in Elmont, which persisted into the 1990s, and where one of the cashiers, Clara, had been nice to me since I was even a much younger toddler.

There were times when I’d accompany my parents to Pathmark in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it always seemed like a chore. In those days, it was considered safe to let a kid wander around alone inside. I would check out the cereal aisle, to see if there were any neat premiums being offered in that era’s assemblage of Quisp and Quake and Sugar Crisp and so many other cereals whose names remain familiar. I still peruse the cereal boxes, to see if there are any neat toys being offered inside.

There was also a toy section featuring an assemblage somewhat bigger than what has become the usual assortment of supermarket bits and pieces.

Ultimately, the neatest feature at Pathmark for a youngster may have been a huge paperback section featuring an amazing array of bestsellers and non-fiction books. Pathmark was where I bought some of my very first books on the history of movies, including, in my monster-loving youth, a biography of Boris Karloff!

From its inception in Franklin Square, Pathmark had tried to be unique. At the back of the store was a section invoking the classic Horn and Hardart cafeterias in Manhattan, famous for all the food, sandwiches and cakes and the like, being offered through slots in the wall protected by a glass cover. If you put coins in the apparatus, you could lift the cover and take your treat.  Horn and Hardart was famous for the quality of its offerings, and for being a very affordable place for any New Yorker to put together a decent meal. More than one location also became known as a writers’ hangout, with some of the best-known reporters and talent of the era sitting for a long while, sipping their coffee, and enjoying the conversation.

Beginning in the 1970s, Pathmark also had a long running series of television commercials, starring James Karen. Most of us probably presumed he was a Pathmark executive, until he also began popping up as an actor in horror movies like “Poltergeist” and “The Return of the Living Dead.”

As I moved back and forth from our area over the decades, Pathmark was my supermarket of choice.

But then, about five years ago, something very sad began to happen, at least at a couple of Pathmark locations that I frequented. If you weren’t careful, it was far too easy to buy out-of-date products off Pathmark’s shelves. My discovery occurred when making a salad dressing mix one night, and a strange gelatinous form suddenly floated to the top of the bowl. I looked at the expiration date on the ingredients box. It had passed six months earlier.

I didn’t stop shopping at Pathmark. I just became disappointed, and far more careful.

Besides, I was very fond of some of the employees, and I had a particular problem: I am addicted to Pathmark Instant Coffee. Or at least I was. The store’s been out of its own label for a while.

I’ve been compensating by experimenting with a myriad of other makes. In years past, I would take several jars with me, on the road.

It was odd, by the way, when earlier this year, my local Pathmark reached into the warehouse, and began using plastic bags, from some time back, apparently having run out of the newer editions.

I also love the deli counter’s fried chicken. To me, it’s the best in New York by far. Pathmark must have a proprietary recipe, which I can only hope it’ll share with its successor.

The loss of the store, otherwise, doesn’t seem particularly perceptible. After all, there will be another supermarket in its place.

What has been heartbreaking, however, is seeing the looks of uncertainty in the eyes of so many of the long-time employees, and even on the faces of the store’s younger veterans. All told, more than 4,000 people on Long Island could be without a job by Thanksgiving. My greatest hope is that the new owners will do the right thing for those who have been part of our lives for such a very long time.

James H. Burns is a writer/actor living in Franklin Square, who has written for The Village Voice, Newsday, CBS.COM, The Sporting News and The New York Times.