Recalling the Grocery Stores of Albany’s Past

The trick of time is that it passes slowly, and changes are incremental, so you can hardly notice it happening. The world of today looks mostly like the world of yesterday to us, and yet there have been a thousand little changes over the years that separate those worlds. When things change all at once, it seems a revolution, but when they change little by little, it just seems the passing of time.

Grocery stores are one example. Sure, 50 years ago, they were selling milk and meats, frozen foods and Cap’n Crunch, just as they are today. And yet everything about them has changed.

Grocery stores in the Capital District used to be numerous, to say the least. The 1870 directory for Albany alone listed 17 wholesale grocers. Retail grocers counted in the hundreds, at a time when Albany’s population was just about 70,000. In 1920, when Albany had 113,000 residents, there were 20 wholesalers and an even greater number of retailers, in every corner of the city.

Every neighborhood had several groceries in those days, and shopping for food was often a daily enterprise. The vast majority of these were small storefronts, usually the lower levels of residential buildings – you can often see reminders of them today, in places that long survived as neighborhood stores, as odd bump-outs on the fronts of brownstones, as enlarged entries and windows at the basement level.

Even when I was growing up in an older suburb in the ’60s and ’70s, they were still numerous. My first real job was working in one of them, one of the last of the high-quality butcher shops in the region, which was also a neighborhood grocery store.

Somewhere around the 1930s the supermarket concept was developed – a neighborhood store, but with more, and run by a central chain. There were A&P stores, and Grand Unions and Mohicans. For a while, there was a chain associated with the area’s seminal radio station, WGY Food Stores. But even as late as 1958, the chains barely had a hold. There was one A&P in Albany, one Albany Public Market, one Grand Union, four Empires, two Central Markets (later to become Price Chopper). Trading Post was the biggest chain in the city, with 5 locations.

The rest of the city’s shopping was done at small neighborhood stores with names like Gimondo, Femia, Sharkey Demaco, Rosenberg, and Tanski. Even the so-called supermarkets were very much part of their neighborhoods in those days, often repurposing previous buildings — such as the Central Markets location on Madison and Swan, which was built on the rather generous stone foundation of the Madison Avenue Second Reformed Church that had burned in 1930.

But with the move of population to the suburbs, the chains started to grow. Competition and demographics, and the willingness of Americans to drive absolutely everywhere rather than walk anywhere, contributed to bigger and bigger centrally-located, chain-owned stores, and the death of these tiny independents.

And the experience of shopping in them changed, too

The stores themselves aren’t the only thing about groceries that have changed. Almost everything else has, too, but in ways that are almost invisible. Everyone probably realizes that plastic grocery bags didn’t even used to exist, and that soda and milk came exclusively in glass bottles, and was all bottled nearby. Burlap has practically disappeared from anything but craft stores, but 40 years ago, potatoes, onions and oranges all came in burlap sacks. Meat was nearly always cut to order, and wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with string, rather than laid out on a foam tray and stacked in coolers. Even something as simple as a box of cereal isn’t the same as it was four decades ago. The box itself is infinitely thinner for both environmental and economic reasons. The bag that actually holds the cereal used to be a satisfyingly thick, crinkly wax paper that would sort of stay closed; now it’s a thin plastic film that never will. Very little food came in any kind of plastic container at all.

Prices were not on little paper stickers (if those still exist) or posted on the shelves – they were stamped onto the ends of cans and boxes with heavy blue ink using a price stamper – the stockboy (that’s what we were) would spin the numbers on the stamper to the correct price, press it against the ink pad, and then punch the stamper against the top of the can or box. (This is now so archaic that it’s hard to even Google search for it.) When the prices needed to be changed (and in the days of inflation in the 1970s, that was often), the stockboy would clean the price off the can with a rag and nail polish remover so the new (higher) price could be stamped on.

(In the store I worked in, by the way, the markup from wholesale was 40%, much higher than the chains. That might seem outrageous, but that was money that paid local workers, sponsored the store’s Little League team, and built wealth in the community, rather than sending it off to a corporate headquarters in a remote land.)

When you carried your groceries up to the register, there were no scanners. The check-out clerk had to enter each item’s price into the cash register. Unmarked items weren’t usually a problem – the clerk knew the price of most things. Your receipt had prices but only categories that would describe the items, such as “Gr” for grocery, “Pr” for produce, etc.

The most subtle change in grocery stores, as in most stores, is the ambient music. Whereas now you can expect the odd experience of hearing The Clash sing “Lost in the Supermarket” while you are, in fact, lost in the supermarket, real music in retail spaces didn’t happen until the 1980s. For decades before that, there was something called Muzak, and its ilk: light, syrupy string arrangements of almost-identifiable melodies intended to give no offense and to set no pulse to racing. As a customer, it was just there. As an employee, it could make you insane. In the days before the Walkman was invented, I learned to play entire albums in my own head, note for note, so as to drown out the cloying melodies of the Muzak.

Today, the Albany area is, depending on how you count, down to three or four grocery chains with multiple locations (not counting Walmart or Target). Only one of them, Price Chopper, is local. Very few of them are within any of the city limits, catering almost entirely to the suburbanites.

But with the trend toward more and more downtown living, some form of the neighborhood store will have to re-emerge. Personally, I just hope it brings back burlap.

By Carl Johnson from All Over























The Father of Albany Bowling, the Pine Hills Playdium; an American Dream

Plans to demolish the Playdium bowling alley on Ontario and Park for an apartment building are chugging along. Although the Playdium has been looking a bit worn these days, it’s an Albany icon. It’s almost 80 years old and has brought fun and sport to at least 4 generations of Albanians. Because it’s played such an important role in our history, we thought we would tell you a bit about how it came to be and the family that brought it to us.

The Playdium was built in 1940 on a vacant New York Telephone Co. lot by Sam Herkowitz. It was Sam’s dream. He was a very smart businessman and wild about bowling; he told a Time Union reporter that if he couldn’t make his fortune in bowling, he would go broke trying.

Sam came to Albany with his family from Romania in 1895, and went through the public schools. In the early 1900s, the family lived on Trinity Place among other immigrant populations; his father was a junk dealer with a business on Herkimer St. In 1913 When Sam was about 20 he was introduced to bowling. (Back then indoor bowling, the way we know it today, was a relatively new sport.) He bowled a few games at the Odd Fellow’s Hall on Beaver St. and he was hooked. Not only did he fall in love with the sport, but he saw its future as a business. Two years later, in 1915, he opened the first full-fledged bowling academy and alley in Albany, with a dozen lanes, at 44 Beaver. Hundreds flocked to the opening of the Palm Garden bowling academy and billiard parlor. There was a master of ceremonies at the opening, a street parade, band and a turkey dinner for 250 guests. It was a huge success.



The local newspapers called it a “high class and up to date establishment”; just what Albany needed. The sport of bowling had come to Albany – thanks to Sam. By 1916 there was a city bowler’s association and other Albany entrepreneurs entered the wonderful world of bowling. Sam was also a bit of a marketing genius.. he used clever ads and understood that people had to learn how to bowl, so he recruited bowling teachers and the best bowlers in the country for exhibition matches. He actively encouraged women bowlers, something that had never been done before in Albany. Prohibition moved bowling out taverns and saloons. Sam could see the need to create a place for men to congregate, in more family friendly environment, especially as the middle class grew.

2.3Over the next 25 or so years, Sam built a bowling empire. Around 1920, he added the Albany Recreation bowling alley on the upper floors of 69 N. Pearl, over a movie theatre called the Annex (later to be called the Albany movie theatre).


In 1931 Sam opened the Palace bowling center at 95 Central Ave.


When the Depression rolled over the nation, the popularity of bowling increased; it was a way to have some relatively cheap fun. Sam capitalized on that popularity and took risks, betting on the future of bowling. In 1936 he found a prime spot in downtown Albany and opened the State Street Recreation Center at 53-61 State St, just above Broadway. Along the way he opened another bowling alley In Rensselaer and one in Troy.

But Sam had his heart set on a bowler’s paradise in Albany. Around 1938 he acquired the land on which the Playdium sits today, and then began its planning, traveling to various well known alleys across the country to see the best of the best and bring it back to Albany. He and his architect designed an Art Deco dream with glass blocks and plenty of bright neon.


The Playdium was truly a bowling-recreation center- 28 alleys with a fine dining restaurant, snack bar and ice cream bar. There was a cocktail lounge with live music, air-conditioning and parking for hundreds of cars. There was nothing like it in the area. From its opening in fall, 1940 the Playdium was wildly popular and Sam was already planning other major bowling centers in Albany and Schenectady.



12Sadly, Sam died suddenly from a heart attack in spring, 1941 less than 6 months after the opening of his triumph. The entire bowling community in Albany paid their respects.

2.4It was left to his widow Rose to run the company. While Rose knew little of the actual business, she herself had been a bowler and knew what bowlers wanted.


14During World War II the Playdium took off. People were looking for any sort of entertainment to take their mind off the War. Bowling, along with movies, fit the bill. And when the War was over, people were ready for care-free fun. By this time, Allan, the only child of Rose and Sam, had returned from the Navy, and despite his desire for another career, he took over the family company. Over time, he and Rose made the decision to focus on the flagship bowling center in Albany

Allan, too, was dedicated to bowling as more than a business. By the early 1950s the Playdium became a fixture in Albany. Beginning in late morning the housewives of Albany played in women’s leagues, in the late afternoon the lanes were crammed with kids in after school leagues and there was usually a wait list for adult leagues at night. It pulsed with life and laughter.

While there were other bowling alleys in Albany and several more were built in the late 1950s, the Playdium was in the center of a residential area. On Saturdays and school holidays in the 1950s and 1960s there would be hundreds of children at the Playdium. The kids of Albany asked for bowling shoes for Hannukah and Christmas. Parents could send their kids off to the Playdium on wintery Saturdays with $2 – enough money for 3 games (if I recall it was 35 cents/game) and a slice of pizza, a Coke, a bag of chips and a nickel candy bar; the kids were thrilled and parents had no worries. Birthday parties at the Playdium were a “thing” among Boomer kids and a welcome respite for busy moms.


Sunday was family day. It wasn’t uncommon to for grandparents who learned to bowl in the various alleys that Sam Herkowitz had owned to watch as their children and grandchildren bowled at the Playdium. It was a “community center”.

The sport of bowling grew, thanks to exhibition matches and TV. Allan was a key player, bringing high caliber talent to the area and working with the other local bowling alley operators to market the sport. By 1965 there were 750 bowling leagues in Albany. But by the 1970s interest in bowling declined steeply in the U.S. and it was no different in Albany. One by one the other bowling alleys closed; Schades, South End Lanes, Rice’s Bowling Alley, and ABC Bowling Center. Operating a bowling center is a younger person’s game and Allan sold the Playdium to Neil and Ruth Luther in 1983. Neil was (and still is) an avid bowler and had worked in several bowling centers.

The Luthers made many upgrades and kept the Playdium going in Albany over next 34 years, until was the last public bowling alley in the city. But 77 years is a nice long run. The staff hasn’t been given a timeline and the doors are still open and leagues still bowl, waiting for the last frame. SO GO BOWLING AT THE PLAYDIUM while you can.

Thanks to Sandra Herkowitz Kennedy, Sam’s granddaughter, for her help in preparing this post, including family pics.







Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor