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After fire, all that's left are fond memories

A recent early-morning fire in West Hempstead displaced 30 residents. This hit home with me. I grew up there.

That building held countless memories for me. From 1946 to 1979, my parents, Lillian and Carl Herman, owned the candy store there known as "Carl’s," at the corner of Woodfield Road and Eagle Avenue. It was a New York-style candy store, with nine daily newspapers; magazines and comic books; a counter with a soda fountain, ice cream and sandwiches; novelties; and toys. We lived in the two-bedroom apartment above the store. The Lakeview Long Island Rail Road station was steps away. The elementary school, then known as Eagle Avenue School, was a block away.

The building was at the center of community life. It also included Henry the shoemaker, Frank the butcher, Eddie the upholsterer, and Bob’s Bar & Grill. The building to the north housed Roochvarg’s Pharmacy, a delicatessen, and Wilson’s Liquors. My family was particularly close to the Roochvargs, and I have been married to a cousin of theirs for 51 years. The building to the west was home to a grocery store, Eagle Cleaners, and Hawkins Hardware. In the early 1950s, our neighborhood did not yet have a supermarket. The community’s needs were met by those small businesses.

I didn’t have a full sense of the roles that my mom and dad played in so many lives until a former customer, around 2010, created a Facebook group to remember the store. Hundreds of kids – I still think of them as kids – have recalled their experiences: buying candy after school, drinking egg creams, being told by my dad to either buy the comic books or put them down, and talking to my mom about things they couldn’t discuss with their own parents.

My parents employed trustworthy neighborhood teenagers and adults. Women worked the counter during the day, teens worked afternoons, evenings and weekends, and teenage boys assembled the Sunday newspapers. One counter girl, Phyllis Schultz, became a "Jeopardy!" champion. A newspaper boy became a mutual fund executive and appeared on the cover of "Money" magazine. In my teens in the early 1960s, I worked in the store, too.

The store meant long days for my parents and a lot of routine. It was open 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. six days a week and eight hours on Sundays. There were special moments, too, like the Sunday in July 1960 when I stood awestruck as world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson entered to buy a newspaper. The Yankees’ Hector Lopez was a regular, as were Warren Covington, leader of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra; Lincoln Lynch, Long Island chair of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Hank Williams, legendary coach and athletic director at Malverne High School.

The apartments were small. My friend Dario’s family lived in the apartment above the shoemaker. My friend Jimmy’s grandmother lived above Frank’s Butcher Shop. I spent the first third of my life being self-conscious about my circumstances — thinking that my buddy Dario and I were the only kids who didn’t live the suburban, comfortable lives depicted on 1950s sitcoms, with the other families going on vacations. I spent the next third too busy with my own family to focus on my past. Now I am proud of my modest beginnings.

The destruction of the building that housed all those memories has left me feeling empty, but the fond images cannot be erased.

Reader Howard J. Herman lives in Great Neck.

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