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Toolin’ Around Town: A life among groceries at Petaluma’s Purity Store

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Grocery stores seem to have a life of their own.

Over the years, numerous Petaluma groceries and markets of all sizes have come and gone. Unlike today’s mega-stores, the larger local stores of yesteryear included Pacific Market, Roger Wilco, Hagstroms, Petaluma Grocery and others, while smaller neighborhood stores like Starnes, Mallett’s, and Ken’s Market offered convenience items.

Times have changed. They’re all gone now, except for the memories.

As a retired grocery store manager, Jack Hansen fondly remembers the good old days when store clerks were a more integral part of a store’s operation, from unloading truckloads of canned goods using hand dollies, and marking the price of every item, to working late hours buffing floors and restocking shelves.

The grocery industry, like every other trade, has changed dramatically since Hansen was 23-years-old and started working as a clerk at the Purity Store, at the corner of Western Avenue and Keller Street in 1954. He’d bagged groceries as a teenager, and knew from the time he was hired that a career in the grocery business looked promising.

Among the changes Hansen encountered during his tenure at Purity included extended store hours, being open on Sundays, and relaxing a strict dress code that prohibited men’s long hair and sideburns. Sale prices, hand-painted on butcher paper, were taped to store windows and the Wednesday edition of the Argus-Courier carried pages of grocery store ads. Technical and innovative changes introduced bar codes, scanners and computerized cash registers.

“I had a good life working in the stores and I took my job very seriously. I ran a good store,” said the 87-year-old Hansen, who gained a reputation for treating his employees with courtesy and respect. “But I’m glad I’m retired.”

Employment in the grocery trade was a good fit for Hansen and it came at an opportune time for the Petaluma-born, 1948 graduate of Petaluma High, recently discharged from the Navy and newly married. When he was younger, he sold newspapers, delivered drugs on his bicycle for Tuttle Drug Store, and caddied - for $1 per round - at Petaluma Golf & Country Club. After that, he worked at National Ice & Storage and labored for Shoemaker House Movers.

Raised on Petaluma’s east side, Hansen is a descendant of Danish immigrants who built the historic Hansen House on McDowell Road (North McDowell Boulevard) in 1906 and operated a chicken ranch. The home’s unique construction included an attached tank house that provided it with the convenience of running water, a modern marvel for its time. His father, Marinus, drove a truck for Standard Oil, and his mother, Karen, worked at the Silk Mill, while Jack and his sister Mary attended the original McKinley School and Washington Grammar. An accomplished athlete, Hansen played baseball and football at Petaluma High and was the centerfielder on Moch Lucchesi’s elite, traveling baseball team.

Purity Stores, established in San Francisco in 1929, billed itself as the largest all-Northern California grocery chain and operated as far south as Fresno and north to Fort Bragg, with many stores in small towns.

Its motto: “You get a smile in the bargain at Purity.”

After becoming store manager, Hansen was transferred to Santa Rosa for several years and then to San Rafael for about five years. He returned to Petaluma in 1965 to manage the new Purity store that opened where Petaluma Market now stands. At that time, lean ground beef sold for 45 cents a pound, bread was 19 cents a loaf and large AA eggs were 37 cents a dozen.

All purchases came with Blue Chip Stamps.

“The main thing about being the boss is to treat everyone fairly,” said Hansen, who oversaw about 20 checkers, baggers, and meat and produce employees, all of them required to wear the company’s trademark white shirt and red bow tie. Purity sold Knudsen brand dairy products but did not stock locally produced Clover milk and butter, although it was made just five blocks away.

In 1975, after 10 years with Purity, Hansen became the manager of Prairie Market in east Petaluma, a Seattle based, no-frills, warehouse-style chain that featured open cases and many bulk food items. When Prairie Market closed in 1984, Hansen went to work for Petaluma City Schools.

Hansen’s wife, the former Lydia Pedroni, passed away last year after 63 years together. She worked as a bookkeeper for O’Neill Drug Store and volunteered at St. Vincent’s Church and Alphabet Soup. The couple raised three children - Gary, an award- winning local electrician, David, who died in 1984 and Julie, a registered nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Apple Valley.

The family frequently vacationed in Lake County, and Jack joined Sons in Retirement Services and played golf after retiring. A longtime fan of the Giants and 49ers, for many years he had season tickets on the 47-yard-line at Candlestick Park.

“I’m so fortunate to have married Lydia. We had a wonderful life together,” said Hansen, who enjoys his three grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week. You can write him at harlan@sonic.net)