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'A sad day in Grays Ferry' with the passing of The Store

Christmastime at The Store in Grays Ferry meant six-foot hoagies, maybe an extra pack of Virginia Slims for Mom's stocking, and a special treat to warm every kid's heart.

Christmastime at The Store in Grays Ferry meant six-foot hoagies, maybe an extra pack of Virginia Slims for Mom's stocking, and a special treat to warm every kid's heart.

The look on the children's faces was priceless, proprietor Bobby Bertele said, after gulping down a shot of 50-year-old Canadian whiskey his father-in-law, "Scanny," had left behind when he died.

"In all these years, we only had one mother complain," Bertele, 62, said with a hoarse laugh.

Bertele, a retired telephone operator, and his cousin Eddie McBride, 67, don't own a bar or a liquor store at 29th and Tasker. It's a convenience store, more or less, that's simply named "The Store."

Locals just call it "The." And after 40 years, the bottle of Seagram's VO ran dry Friday night when The Store closed up for good.

"It's a sad day in Grays Ferry," Paul Callen, 45, an electrician with Local 98, said earlier that afternoon. "I've been coming here since I was 14."

A Polaroid of Callen from "skinnier days" was taped to the counter with dozens of others.

"Dude, back in the day, you couldn't even move in here," said customer Pat Lynch, 45.

The Store looked in need of a makeover ever since Bertele and McBride opened it in 1976. The previous owner, who had no hands, wanted "a song and a dance" for it and the cousins tried to get him down to "a song."

Admittedly, they didn't do much sprucing up after taking it over.

"I had one guy come in after 25 years in prison and he says, 'Man, nothing's changed in here,' " Bertele said.

The oven that makes The Store's famous pizza is a charred mystery, sitting below a 1984 Madonna poster tacked to the wood paneling.

Pretzels in the shape of Flyers and Phillies logos hang hard as diamonds by the stacks of VHS tapes that haven't had much recent circulation.

"The Godfather was the top rental," said McBride, a retired city employee. "Everybody loved the mob movies."

The cousins came up with The Store's simple name and it proved oddly effective, Bertele said.

"Well, his name is Eddie, my name is Bobby. So we're trying 'Bobby and Eddie' or 'Eddie and Bobby,' maybe 'B and E.' We couldn't decide," Bertele said. "We remember when the neighbors used to send you to the store and we thought if they say 'The Store,' the kids are going to think they have to come here."

No one in Grays Ferry cared much what The Store looked like or even what it sold or didn't sell. By Friday, there wasn't much left to buy there, anyway.

People were coming in for hugs, to ask someone for a light, and to beg Debbie Bertele, Bobby's wife, to make them some of the famous pizza and pizza pretzels.

Debbie Bertele, 59, never had a pizza pretzel. Bobby Bertele thinks they're gross. No one remembers who came up with them, either.

"We hate them," Bobby Bertele said. "Here it turns out, they were our best seller."

Debbie Bertele said The Store employed about 70 kids from the neighborhood over the years and babysat hundreds more when their parents were running errands.

"I was everyone's psychiatrist and everyone's mother," she said Friday afternoon.

"Yeah," her husband replied, "but no one ever paid us."

Racial tensions simmered and flashed often in Grays Ferry over the last four decades. The intersection of 29th and Tasker was ground zero and Frank Rizzo was known to show up, nightstick out.

"Rizzo took a whiz in the cellar," Bobby Bertele said.

In a 1997 article in the Daily News about racial issues in Grays Ferry, Debbie Bertele said The Store was frequented by whites and blacks, something she reiterated Friday.

"I treated everyone the same," she said from behind the counter. "I didn't care what color you were. You are nice to me, I am nice to you."

Still, the Berteles said The Store was always known as the "white boys' store." Tyrique Glasgow, a black man who grew up two blocks from The Store, agreed.

"I was a customer, but I didn't hang out there," said Glasgow, founder of a nonprofit that provides after-school programs in South Philly. "Their pizza was good."

The Berteles' sons, Andrew and Robert, showed up to say goodbye Friday. Both had worked there and that made them feel like celebrities growing up.

"I didn't pay for anything," said Andrew, 26. "My friends used to get so mad."

Debbie Bertele's sister dropped by for pizza pretzels to go.

Bobby Bertele got a cake for his retirement from Acme that said The End and he filled the fridge with 12-packs of Miller High Life and Miller Lite.

A few Arctic Splash ice teas were still left, too.

By 2 p.m. Friday, Bobby Bertele cracked open a High Life, the Department of Licenses and Inspections be damned.

"What are they going to do, come in and shut us down?" Debbie Bertele asked. "Oh, well. The Store's closed."