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Mt. Tacoma Grocery & Meats

Written by Joe Bilanko

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2009 Summer issue

This is the second in a two-part series about grocery stories in Old Town Tacoma.

The first post is available here.

Mt. Tacoma Grocery was opened in 1895 by Amil Zelinsky at 2120 N 30th Street. My grandfather, Srecko Bilanko, purchased the store in 1920 and moved it to 2208 N 30th Street in 1923 where it continued in operation until a new self-service store was built next door at 2210 N 30th Street in the 1950s. After World War II, Srecko's sons, Mitch and Phil, operated the store until their retirement in 1978. In the early years, it was one of seven or eight grocery stores serving the neighborhood.

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Phil, Srecko and Mitch Bilanko in front of the Mt Tacoma Grocery.

Until the advent of the new store in the 1950s, grocery shopping was not self-service. The canned goods were stacked floor to ceiling behind the counter. Breads and pastries were inside glass cases. Pasta, rice and beans were only available in bulk and cheeses came in large wheels. Ice was available in 25 and 50 pound blocks to serve the ice boxes still in use in many of the homes. Meat choices included tripe and tongue more familiar to the recent immigrants of that time. A single aisle ran through the middle of the store separating the grocer from the butcher. In winter, heat was provided by a large pot- bellied stove located in the back room that was fueled by the cardboard and wooden pallets on which the groceries were delivered.

There was a sizeable commercial salmon fishing fleet based in Tacoma with several boats making the trek to Southeast Alaska each year. Mt. Tacoma Grocery was the primary supplier of foods and accessories to these boats. In the early years, this would include live chicken and several pounds of raisins. During prohibition (1920-1933), it is rumored that the raisins were used to make alcohol. In addition to the groceries, the orders would include dishes, glasses, cooking utensils, linens, and ice. The ice, fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats would be delivered just prior to sailing. Deliveries were made in a 1938 Chevy with the back seat removed and later in a 1952 Chevy station wagon.

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Bilanko's was known as "the fishermen's grocery store."

The statue “A Fish Story” in front of Slavonian Hall testifies to the proud Old Town fishing fleet.

More than a source of groceries and meats, the store became a gathering place, especially after the typical hangouts such as the barber shop and small cafe closed. Neighborhood kids, commercial fishermen, mailmen, salesmen, and neighbors all stopped and stayed well beyond the time most of us spend in a grocery store today. One customer noted that it was the only place you could stand around and talk without having to buy anything.

There was always a pot of coffee and stale donuts in the back room for the regulars. At lunchtime, there might be as many as six or seven people in the back room eating the lunch they brought or one made from lunch meats and bread supplied by the store.

Saturdays were a particularly busy day. The smart shoppers phoned their meat orders in and picked them up later in the day or had them delivered. Pre-cut and pre-packaged meats were not available at Mt. Tacoma Grocery so each request was cut to order. Customers waiting for their meat order filled the back of the store as Mitch bantered with the customers and carefully prepared their order from the side of beef hanging in the cooler. They always complained about the wait and they always returned the next week.

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The impressive cash register used at Mt. Tacoma Grocery on display at the Tacoma Historical Society.

Photo credit: Tacoma Historical Society

While Mitch held sway in the butcher shop, Phil held court from behind the counter in the front of the store. With language peppered with profanities, you could be insulted in two languages as you came or went. Most people took it as a sign of acceptance if they were on the receiving end of one of Phil's good-natured barbs.

In addition to the food and drink, Mt. Tacoma Grocery provided services not generally found in stores of today. Credit was readily available to those who needed it such as the seasonal fishermen, the periodically unemployed, and the elderly. Customers picked their groceries and signed the slip which went into an antiquated filing system. When the store closed in 1978, I added up over $12,000 in unpaid charge slips, some several years old. Phone orders were not unusual and delivery was always free, especially after I got my drivers license. A short term loan was occasionally available to the truly needy (my first watch was a battered Timex that was left as collateral for a $10 loan that was never repaid). Banking services were even available at the store.

One of the locals would cash his pay check on Saturday and leave most of the money in the store safe with instructions not to give him any more money that night when he came begging after spending several hours at The Spar Tavern. There was no charge for these services.

When Mitch and Phil announced their retirement in 1978 and the closing of the store, their customers gave them a retirement party for the ages at the Slavonian Hall. From 8 to 88, the people came to honor the brothers and family who had served their neighborhood for so long. It was a joyous and sad occasion at the same time. Some had depended on the store for that short term credit to get them to the end of the month. Others relied on having their groceries delivered. Most just missed a place to go and hang out.

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The building at 2208 & 2210 N 30th St was formerly the site of the Bilanko's grocery and butcher shop.

It has been 30 years since the store closed and Old Town has changed considerably, but I still have vivid memories of the people who passed through the doors at 2210 North 30th Street.