Shopkeeper Who Mentored a Young Woman Did Far More Than Run a Market on Balboa Island

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

“My painting is gone!” My daughter and I had just crossed the threshold of the market on Balboa Island when we looked up to see that the artwork I’d donated more than a decade ago was missing. A sign on the wall read “Close-Out Sale.” Since moving back to Orange County two years prior, I had visited the store on several occasions, each time shamelessly pleading with the new owner—who had been unfamiliar with my benefaction—that were he ever to consider dislodging the painting to please call me first. And lest I seem like that greedy person who freely gives only to want her gift back again, I’d related my story. At first, he was doubtful of its authenticity, but he became a believer as he listened to the tale.

While window shopping in Laguna Beach in the early 1980s, I saw the painting in a gallery. A price beyond my budget didn’t dissuade me; the artist had captured a slice of my life!  Pictured before me was Jimmy, the produce manager at Hershey’s Market. Wearing his signature green apron, Jimmy is illustrated tenderly arranging the vibrant array of Red Delicious apples and ranunculus on his sidewalk stand, the sliding doors on either side wheeled wide open. The lost art of the village grocer—those were the days before a safety inspection dictated that the openings be sealed to the outdoors. Such precaution was a good thing, but it did take the romance out of shopping at markets.

Whenever I gazed at those brushstrokes, it was once again the summer of 1973.

Armed with my USC degree in literature and writing, and without a clue as to the greater purpose of such knowledge, I moved from Pasadena to Balboa Island, where my family had spent every summer from the time my mother was born.

The rent had to be paid. After much debate on the part of the manager and five other male employees as to whether or not a girl could stock shelves and handle a cash register, I became the first female to work at Hershey’s Market. Secretly, I was terrified I wouldn’t measure up. While Jimmy told all the others he suspected I had it in me, I took a deep breath and whispered to myself that it didn’t matter; it was just for that summer. I’d interview in high-rise, shiny office buildings with women come fall.

Under Jimmy’s tutelage, I mastered the manual keyboard until I could bag groceries with my left hand while speedily punching numbers with my right fingers (no peeking) and simultaneously jotting down orders from the telephone receiver cupped under my chin. Every day at closing, he cheered, “Well done!” and handed me a paper sack of enormous, aromatic peaches and an armload of fresh flowers. Soon he presented me with my own green apron. My grandmother was so proud that she came bursting in with a camera to immortalize the moment.

Come Labor Day, a steady stream of cars loaded with rafts and innertubes paraded back home across the bridge, the summer sunset in their rearview mirrors. Overnight, the only sound was the gentle lapping of the sea against the shore. I was idle enough to play Frisbee from corner to corner with the boy who manned the takeout window across the street at the Jolly Roger restaurant, so Jimmy advocated I spread my wings. Before long, I calculated (sans calculator) the daily accounting, wore the lockup key on my belt, and hand-delivered the zipper pouch filled with cash to the owner’s house. Jimmy showed me how to sort and select from the morning produce delivery—only the cream of the crop for his decorous display.

Summer had given way to autumn, and autumn soon became winter, and despite my bachelor’s degree, I stayed. The budding dream of perhaps someday owning this small-town shop ultimately took a back seat to big-city fantasy. After another year, I headed up the freeway to the Los Angeles Times where, certainly, it was heady to exchange pleasantries with Otis Chandler in marble hallways and deposit earnings allowing me to afford clothes I didn’t cover with a green apron. But I was never more alive than on that ice-cream-stained sidewalk, the bay breeze in my hair, Jimmy tossing me navel oranges that didn’t make the cut.

Marriage and children moved me south to San Juan Capistrano. I took a picture of my newly purchased painting to show Jimmy, who still tended his inventory, albeit indoors by then, and he said he’d remembered seeing a young woman standing behind her easel across the street. He humbly grinned at the image, then predictably lobbed a freestone peach into the cupped hands of my delighted toddlers.

That was the last time I saw him. Years later, before I moved to Montana, I learned he’d passed away, and I regretted not having given him the artist’s rendering of the labor of his lifetime, having chosen to cling to my own memories rather than to reward his.

So amid all my packing and preparation, I decided the painting should hang on the wall where he’d painstakingly perfected his craft, not in some gray, snowy state with no saltwater. At that time, the owners were two young men tolerant enough to listen to the ramblings of this middle-aged woman who, wearing her badge of pride, boasted about being the first female employee back in the day. They acknowledged the narrative historic, and while studying the painting, tried to imagine a sidewalk stand brimming with fresh fruit and vegetables and market shelves that stocked everything needed in a pantry. By then, it had been reduced to a pitstop for refueling on PowerBars and deli sandwiches; grab a postcard or a souvenir T-shirt if you want a memory.

Last year, on the day I was with my daughter, I asked the girl behind the counter about the painting’s conspicuous absence, and she informed me that newer owners had come and gone, the store was closing, and the painting was, she thought, now back with the artist. If we couldn’t be reunited, at least that was small comfort. Perhaps since the artist had chosen Jimmy at his stall as her subject, she recognized in him what I had carried with me from him. If so, I hope she hangs it on her living room wall rather than sell it to someone who admires the scenery but was never part of it.

I suppose a corner grocery can no longer compete with the ample offerings at Whole Foods Market and Gelson’s, and progress is not something I deserve to criticize while filling my online shopping cart at Amazon. A different retail experience has taken over the space where once, for a brief and dazzling moment, this hesitant young girl found one gentle soul who waved me right into a man’s world. He taught me it’s not about doing something lofty but doing what you love. In that shimmering season, I collected a paycheck for what felt more like heaven than endeavor.

Whenever I walk by, I will close my eyes to catch the scent of peaches in the air.

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