Jan 11, 2016

Pepe Prats and his Tienda

José Prats Amat and his wife Eduvigis Respall (Generation 0) ran a small corner grocery store (tienda or bodega)  in Camagüey, first at Republica and Martí Streets, and then two blocks east at #2 Avellaneda Street at its corner with Martí, facing the Martí Park Plaza. The Piarist primary and secondary school (Escuelas Pias) with its gothic Sacred Heart Church (Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón) was across the plaza. They lived next door to the shop at #4 Avellaneda Street which was part of the same building and had connecting doors from the home to the shop.  He called the shop “La Caridad del Cobre” referring to Cuba’s patron saint. There was no competition at this corner (the old location was across the street from La Zambrana, a very large grocery and dry-goods shop) and it was the only shop that faced the park, so there were more walk-by customers.

The store had two very tall and wide wooden doors facing each street that were left open during store hours, with tall wood-and-glass cases like you find in a deli today arranged in an L opposite the doors, separating the shopkeeper from the customers.  You asked for things and the shopkeeper would get them for you from the glass cases or on the shelves lining the two inside walls or in the adjacent stockroom. On top of some cases were trays with dome-shaped glass covers with sweets and cheeses. Fruits and root vegetables were in barrels on the customer side of the counter so you would select what you wanted and hand them over for weighing.

Gadgets have always been interesting to me, so I remember the store’s orange peeler, mounted on the wall just inside the storeroom, with a trash can under it. Seville oranges back then had very acidic oil on their skins, and you never wanted to get it anywhere near your lips. It could also burn your fingertips as you dug into the skin with your nails to open the orange. They had to be peeled before you attempted to eat them. If you purchased an orange to eat immediately, you would ask the shopkeeper to peel it for you. He would clamp it in the machine, then turn the handle which turned the fruit under a small spring-loaded blade that would start at one end of the orange and create a single long thin peel as the fruit moved under it, leaving the white inner peel ready for the customer to break into to eat the orange.  The peeler could also peel apples imported from the United States.

A favorite snack was guava jelly and cream cheese between two large water crackers. On the counter under a glass dome was a large loaf of guava jelly paste and under another a brick of cream cheese. Ask for one and out came two crackers from the cracker tin, then a generous slice of jelly and another of cheese were cut, assembled and handed to you.  Also under glass domes were meringue cookies and caramel fudge. Pepe’s son Benito, who helped out at the shop after school when he was a kid, told the story of his solution to a pilfering problem with the items under the glass bells on the counter. They were unguarded when whoever was the shopkeeper ducked into the storeroom to fetch something. He was always inventing gadgets, so he placed a contact switch between the glass and the tray and wired it to an electric bell. Lift the lid without first turning off the bell and “ringggggg!” — caught!

Despite its small size there was an amazing number of things to buy there. From iced bottles of Coca-Cola to rice and dried beans by the pound to salted slabs of bacalao (codfish). There was olive oil and vinegar (by the bottle or by the ounce), spices, canned goods, bars of soap, cosmetics, and whatever little toys were popular at the time. If Pepe did not have something you wanted, he would get it for you in a few days from the jobbers that called on him daily to restock his shelves and convince him to stock whatever food or thing they wanted him to sell.

Many customers bought on credit. Customers would buy things and put it on their tab, paying up on the next payday. Some had standing orders (“send this and that to my house every Tuesday”). A hired delivery boy (or Pepe’s son Benito) on his bicycle would go out and deliver the orders.  Customers with telephones could phone in an order (the store’s phone number was 3170), or send a child over with a list. Also the delivery boy (or Benito, before school) would go house-to-house in the morning offering to write down orders for afternoon delivery.

Pepe Prats could add a long list of numbers instantly, Benito told me, like a human calculator.  As he was gathering the items the customer was requesting, he would write the prices on a paper sack. Then no matter how long the list was, he would very quickly scan down the list of numbers once, using his pencil as a pointer, draw a line at the bottom, and write down the total.  When anyone questioned him on the total he would hand them the pencil and the sack so they could add it up themselves. He was never wrong.

In the mid 1950’s Pepe Prats suffered a stroke that slowed his speech and changed his personality and ability to run the shop, but the shop did not close, his wife Eduvigis took up the slack. The new communist government forced the shop to close around 1961 by disallowing private enterprise so she could not keep it stocked. What I remember of my grandfather was after the stroke, always happy and loving, picking up kids for a swing through the air and making funny faces at them, and he was quick to hand out a meal-ruining snack from the shop, or candy out of his pockets, when parents were looking the other way. A second stroke in 1962 took his life. He was 69.

Mariana Martinez, who would someday become Benito’s wife, told me that as a child she would occasionally stop at Pepe Prats’ store when she was visiting the park across the street and had a few coins with her. She would buy her favorite Swiss chocolate bar, a Peter’s Bar (“I’ll have a Peters, please” but she pronounced it “Peh-ters”), but Benito says he never noticed her then.  Her house was too far from the store for her household to buy groceries there. 
Escuelas Pias
and Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón

across the park from
La Tienda de Pepe Prats
Guava and Cream Cheese Cracker Sandwiches
Retro Fruit Peeler

José Prats and his namesake grandson in 1953