Back in the early sixties, the Blue Front Cigar Store was my home away from home.
Our Saturday morning ritual was to load us kids into the family station wagon and “Let’s go trade in bottles at the Blue Front!” After a short drive down Hill St., we unloaded a week’s worth of pop bottles into the little area next to the door, and went deeper into the store to spend deposit money (and allowances) on comic books and candy.
Growing up in that era, I also spent a lot of time biking to the store to peruse their fairly large selection of science fiction paperbacks. After becoming a familiar face in the place, I was finally able to score my very first summer job there in 1965, working as stock boy, janitor, and occasional cashier. I think I made around $1.75 an hour or so.
My duties were to haul in the morning news papers, unclip the heavy wires bundling them together, and set them out in their places to the right of the door. In those days, the store was one of the few places selling the New York Times, and we got a lot of early morning traffic due to that. I also remember that the NY Times was delivered out front very early Sunday morning, and early-rising readers desperate for their fix would dig the papers out of their bundles and leave money on top, or scattered around on the ground.
The Daily Racing Form was also popular; I vaguely recall it was printed on pink or green paper or something, and we sold five or ten of these every day.
We were also one of the few places in town where you could get out-of-town papers, and we stocked several international magazines: Der Zeit, La Monde, USSR Magazine, and the like. Even some Chinese propaganda magazines, which I found fascinating as I had just studied their revolution in High School.
My boss was Ray Collins, and he was a crusty little guy, who in later years made me think of Danny DeVito. There was also an older lady who worked the cash register and spent most of her time chain-smoking and reading the German magazines.
Back to my routine: after setting out the new papers and moving the older issues to the back of the stacks for eventual culling, I would straighten out the comic book section and clean up the candy area, re-filling boxes of bars and gum as needed. Then I got the interesting duty of tidying up the porn area.
Back in that day, the Blue Front was one of the few places in town where you could get that era’s soft porn magazines such as “Stag”, “Spy” and “Real Balls”. I may have made that last one up, but you get the gist. We even had gay mags involving beefy guys dressed as sailors and such. Not much for the ladies, as I recall. Anyway, it was my job to straighten up these gems and then get out of the way for the crowds bustling in and out to browse and buy.
Continuing on to the back of the store, we had racks and racks of paperback books of all genres and descriptions. Big sellers I remember from back then were “Cybernetics”, “Valley of the Dolls”, and the various joke/cartoon books put out by Price Stern and Sloan: “Elephant Jokes”, “MadLibs”, and the various “Happiness is Dry Martini” parodies. These last were kept up at the register and sold pretty well.
Porn paperbacks were also available, and I have vivid memories of a local pervert claiming he had forgotten his glasses and could I read a chapter of “Leather Lads” to him. I declined.
I did all the processing of pop bottles, hauling them down the back stairs for storage until the monthly deliveries brought in new stock, and the empties went back up the stairs to the truck.
The place was a pit. There was dust and cobwebs everywhere, and my boss never had me do any cleaning. Finally, I got fed up and brought in a vacuum cleaner from home and had at it for a couple of days while home from my first year of college on Christmas break. Ray begrudgingly let me do this and grumpily acknowledged its effect. He had a theory that people were attracted to this level of funkiness, part of the “charm” of the place. He did have me wash the windows occasionally and put newer books on display out there for passersby to admire.
Most of my afternoon time was spent sitting on a crushed cardboard box of old magazines at the back of the store, reading through the pulp paperbacks. Shell Scott books were a favorite. When a customer wanted a particular book, Ray would ding the little bell he had and I would come trotting out to find what was needed. It was summer and there was no air conditioning. It got very hot in there.
I was also called in to run the cash register from time to time. I remember selling condoms to a local car mechanic, which was awkward to my teenage sensibilities.
Much later, in the eighties, I wrote a song about this for my band, Mike Gould and the Gene Pool Band. This was a pastiche of the tune Born in Chicago. My song was called Born in Ann Arbor, and the relevant verse goes:
My first job went down
At the Blue Front Cigar Store…
Selling gum and porn and papers,
Wash the windows, sweep the floor.
We should also remember the fine jump blues band, the Blue Front Persuaders, that was active around the time I was running my band. As I recall band leader Steve Wethy described the name as a combination of the funkiness of the store and the slang term for a honking big wrench. Great band.
All in all, a pretty good first shot at the job scene for high schooler. Good times. I’ll miss it.