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Shopping Locally

Princeton University Store. (University Archives, Princeton University Library; Colorization by Steven Veach for Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Princeton’s Fondly Remembered Establishments

By Anne Levin | Photographs courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton

This past fall, a query was posted on the Facebook page of the group “I Grew Up in Princeton”: Might anyone have special memories to share about local shops they patronized as children?

Within minutes, responses began flooding in. Twenty-four hours later, there were hundreds of reminiscences — of candy stores, toy stores, pharmacies, clothing shops, gift shops, and grocery stores, many run by friendly owners who knew these young customers by name. If they were short on cash, the proprietors would often let them leave with merchandise and send a bill to their parents. Until a few decades ago, this was retail in Princeton. Mom-and-pop stores were the norm, catering to local families and Princeton University students.

Princeton has a different retail landscape today. The town is as much a tourist destination as a place people call home. Upscale shops — many of which are part of chains — line Nassau and Witherspoon streets, Palmer Square, and the Princeton Shopping Center. Instead of Landau, Bellows, and The English Shop, there are Lilly Pulitzer, Barbour, and the soon-to-arrive Hermés. Where The Wooden Nickel, Stuff ‘n Nonsense and The Country Mouse once captivated local browsers, stores like Miya Table & Home, Lindt Chocolate, and Arhaus Studio appeal to shoppers who might be visiting Princeton for an afternoon.

The Central Business District still boasts some locally owned businesses, including jaZams, Small World Coffee, Olsson’s Fine Foods, Hinkson’s, The Bent Spoon, and Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop.

The nonprofit organization Experience Princeton, established in 2022 as the Princeton Business Partnership, devotes considerable attention to marketing these and other establishments in town.
As a prime location between Philadelphia and New York City, Princeton — despite its small size — has always relied on a healthy merchant community. Advertising in the publication Princeton Whig in the 1840s was Manning & Paxson, which sold “Goshen cheese, dry goods, china, glass and queensware,” according to a collection from the Historical Society of Princeton. Ambrose S. Montgomery offered “razors put in order, clothes cleaned, segars and tobacco, in the basement of the Mansion House Hotel.”

Davis & Hunt advertised “wood for sale, dry goods, hardware, crockery, and groceries in the well-known and popular stand recently occupied by J.G. Olden company, nearly opposite the College.” A.W. Sansbury sold “Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup, Venetian blinds, brushes, and chairs nearly opposite City Hotel.”

Priest’s Pharmacy at 2-4 Mercer Street, was built by Josiah Wright in 1878. The building was moved back 60 feet in 1914. It served as the headquarters of Town Topics newspaper for several decades and is currently owned by Princeton University.

Kopp’s Store at 60 Nassau Street.

By the early 20th century, Frederick William Luttman had opened a harness-making and saddle repair shop in a section of Nassau Street next to Princeton’s horse and carriage stables, according to Legendary Locals of Princeton by Richard D. Smith. That business would become Luttman’s Luggage, a Palmer Square institution until it closed in 2005. E.C. Kopp founded Kopp’s Bicycle Shop in 1891, believed to be the oldest continually operating bike store in America and still located on Spring Street.

Paul Urken opened a glass shop, which became Urken Supply Company, in 1936. With its slogan “If we don’t have it you don’t need it,” the store was a fixture on Witherspoon Street until closing its doors in 2002. Patrons with charge accounts included local resident Albert Einstein.

“Christine” Vanity Parlors.

Among Princeton’s most accomplished entrepreneurs of the 1930s was Christine Moore Howell, whose Christine’s Vanity Parlor hairdressing salon on Spring Street included a chemistry lab in the back for research and development. Christine Cosmetics Inc. sold “Derm Tone (Deep Pore Cleanser),” “Velvene (Complexion Vitalizer),” “Nourisheen (Helps Growing Hair),” and “Formula No. 85 (Professional Dandruff Remover).”

Howell was among the first Black Americans to graduate from previously segregated Princeton High School, and she went on to study chemistry in Paris before opening her salon. During her time, Princeton’s Black residents were not welcome to shop on Nassau Street. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where Black families moved after being displaced by construction of Palmer Square in the 1930s, developed its own lively array of shops and services. The neighborhood is now a historic district.

“Many houses in the community were either groceries or candy stores or ice cream parlors,” says historian Shirley Satterfield, who grew up in the neighborhood and founded the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society. “I remember places like Miss Van’s house on Witherspoon Street, where she’d set up a table with linen tablecloths and napkins.”

The area was always diverse. “We did most of our shopping on Leigh Avenue,” Satterfield says. “There was the Billy the Greek restaurant. Next to him was Bolvino’s, our grocery store, and next to that, a candy store, and another one owned by a Jewish woman. They were our stores. That’s where we shopped.”

Satterfied continues, “Mr. Mack had a barber shop on the corner of Quarry and John streets. He would come out and talk when I did [heritage] tours of the neighborhood. Another barber shop, with Mr. Graham, was in a little section of the Paul Robeson House. It used to be where men came to relax after they worked on ‘the avenue,’ as we called Nassau Street.”

Doris Burrell’s Beauty Salon, Frederick Burrell’s Florist Shop, and several taxi services were in the neighborhood. Howell’s beauty parlor on Spring Street was in one of two buildings owned by her father, who had moved to Princeton from North Carolina. In one of them, he ran an antique furniture store on one side, and sold used clothing on the other. The building next door housed his daughter’s beauty parlor on one side, and the art studio of Black artist Rex Goreleigh in the other.

“It wasn’t just in the 20th century — there were businesses way back before any of us were born,” Satterfield says. “Then after we had the businesses and we were laborers and maids and servants, we became educated, as lawyers and doctors. We were like the Black Wall Street. We had everything, because we were not welcomed. We were poor, but we were rich in means.”

The query on the “I Grew Up in Princeton” Facebook page inspired more than 600 comments, many of which were conversations between the members. Princeton natives, particularly from the baby boomer generation, are a nostalgic bunch.

Holly Westergren described The Country Mouse as “the kind of place where you think the stuffed animals and miniatures will come to life and start talking to you. I think it smelled like bayberry, cinnamon, and fresh orange peel.” Ann Proccacino recalled Edith’s as “every Princeton female’s first bra experience.”

Phillip Nollner remembered “running slot cars, buying balsa wood model planes and boats at The Hobby Shop on Nassau; getting candy at Weinstein’s on Nassau near Witherspoon; The Wooden Nickel, Aljohn’s, the roasted peanuts at Cox’s, and the Dino toys at Sinclair gas station.”

Elizabeth Campbell Berkowitz’s father owned the Thorne Pharmacy at 168 Nassau Street. “I remember how the three pharmacies would work together to serve the community,” she wrote. Lisa Witt-Pinaire’s father owned Nassau Pharmacy, directly across from Nassau Hall. “His store was always busy, but once coeds were allowed at Princeton [University], sales went up,” she wrote. “This was also directly equated with the new birth control pills. He could not keep them in stock!”

Leila Shahbender went to the Cummings Shop to pick out her wedding China pattern. “The saleswoman, who I would recognize to this day but can’t remember her name, spread out plates on the floor in a huge grid, like she was dealing cards,” she recalled.

Nassau Street, circa 1900.

Lee Beckerman described a perfect day as one that involved biking “uptown (Nassau Street) to hit the hobby shop, Woolworth’s, and Zinders to look at toys. Maybe hit The Country Mouse, ending up at A&S to grab a comic book.”

Many members of the Facebook group recalled getting their school shoes at Hulit’s, which opened in 1929 and closed 88 years later. “Back in the day we had many Princeton icons such as Albert Einstein, Brooke Shields, Margaret Hamilton, and Peter Benchley, to name a few,” wrote John Hulit, whose grandfather Warren Hulit opened the establishment.

“Business was always booming as we had footwear for the entire family and would fit each customer,” he said. “We got so busy that customers would take a number, like in a bakery, and wait over half an hour to be serviced. We usually had six to eight workers on the sales floor.”

Contractors and plumbers bought their work boots at the Nassau Street store. “Back in the day, there were tons of hardware stores and lumber yards,” John Hulit recalled. “It was a different time. Nobody was open on Sunday. In summer, we closed at noon on Saturday and headed to the shore. On Saturday afternoon, you could shoot a cannon down Nassau Street, and you wouldn’t hit anything.”

Another fondly remembered establishment was Bellows, on the corner of Nassau and Moore streets. “Mrs. Bellows knew the names of all of the regular customers, and as a child I thought they were our good friends,” recalled Polly Smock. Marnie Maxwell was similarly nostalgic.

“Whatever they had in the window, I HAD to have it,” she wrote. “They knew everything about me, and about all my Stuart uniform chums. They knew who had purchased which dress for Barclay dance classes. Then, they opened the Tree House division, which was heaven!”

In the late 1990s, Maxwell was visiting someone at the Meadow Lakes retirement community when a woman who had worked at Bellows approached her. “She came up to me and said how much she enjoyed dressing me when I was a girl,” Maxwell wrote. “I told her I loved the Bellows experience. This is the kind of relationship that doesn’t exist anywhere. It made life in Princeton so special.”

Several members of the group recalled the kittens up for adoption in the windows of Landau, the “Ivy Style” woolen shop that closed in 2021 after 66 years on Nassau Street. Princeton Council President Mia Sacks, who grew up in Princeton, has especially fond memories of Landau. When the store had its annual half-price sale, “I honestly think every female in town went,” she wrote. “They cordoned off the back as one big dressing room and my mom would even let me take the morning off of school so we could get there early and spend a few hours!”

Others remembered the Nassau Deli in Palmer Square, which had wood shavings on the floor. Cheryl Lehnert Costello wrote, “I have an autobiography from Albert Einstein, signed — he used to come in and chit chat with my grandfather, and gave him the book.”

Country Antiques was remembered as a gathering place for artists and creative types. The English Shop, The Prep Shop, and Langrock on Nassau Street sold preppy men’s clothing and were popular with University students. The latter became part of the Princeton University store on University Place in 1985, operating out of a small section on the second floor for 10 years.

Several recalled Mary Watts’ general store and gas station, located on Route 206 for almost six decades. The store stayed open 24 hours a day and carried everything from newspapers and vegetables to hardware and knick-knacks. It was demolished in 1986 to make way for two office buildings.

Amy Greenstein’s fond memories include walking home to University Place from Community Park School with some extra change in her pocket, which she would spend at Polly’s Fine Candy on Palmer Square before moving on to Skirm’s Smoke Shop.

“We’d ask the owner if he had any empty cigar boxes to give away,” she wrote. “It was a big day if you scored a box, especially if it was the coveted wood cigar box! I still have some of those cigar boxes. The candy, of course, was gone before we got home.”

Toto’s Market, at 74 Witherspoon Street, in 1982.

Merrick’s, The Betty Wright Shop, The Lodge, Saturn, Clayton’s, Brophy’s Fine Footwear, The Flower Basket, Griggs’ Imperial Restaurant, Toto’s Market — all are on the list of fondly remembered establishments that were so much a part of life in Princeton.

“Princeton had a lot of locally owned businesses and very friendly store owners,” wrote Greenstein. Judith Glogau, another Princeton native, summed it up: “It was cradle to grave shopping back then.”

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