``Lil Bro's BUS'' Mobile grocery serves up snacks, staples and freinedship

December 16, 1992|By AMY DAVIS

In some neighborhoods, people walk to the corner market when they want a cold soda or a cake mix in a hurry. In Cherry Hill, residents board a bus. once inside, there's no driver, no seats and no destination, but it's never a wasted trip. The half-dozen worn-out school buses parked around the South Baltimore neighborhood are called mobile groceries, but they usually stay in one spot, serving residents who often don't have other convenient shopping options.

Around the bend of Veronica Avenue, parked in a courtyard surrounded by two-story brick public housing and a few modest single-family homes is a faded milk-chocolate-colored school bus--James Owens Mobile Grocery, known in Cherry Hill as L"Lil Bro's Bus."

Mr. Owens, a Cherry Hill resident for 40 years, has been steering his grocery business since 1969, longer than any other mobile grocery owner in the neighborhood.

The hours are long--6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.--Mr. Owens' wife, Geraldine; son, Michael; and various grandchildren and cousins all take turns behind the candy-laden counter. Mr. Owens, 53, was a truck driver before buying the old bus but says he probably got his work ethic from his "younger days." when he "shoeshined, sold eggs and arabbed."

Where schoolchildren once squeezed into seats are rows of narrow shelves running the length of the bus, interrupted here and there by refrigerators, a portable heater and two tiny televisions. At child's eye-level at the front counter is an array of candies, from trendy lollipops to old-fashioned Squirrel Nut Zipper bars. A quarter will buy a hand-packed grab bag of 25 sweets or cookies.

Snack foods, fresh bread and frosted doughnuts flank the candy, and behind the baked goods are bags of chips and popcorn in most every flavor, hung on clips like shiny pillows. Canned goods complete with other household staples, pharmacy items, cigarettes (Best Buy is a popular brand) and even snuff.

James Owens and his help know just about everyone who comes in, which means a good deal of bantering with every sale. A young girl stands patiently after paying for a snack.

"Watcha waiting on?" Mr. Owens asks.

"My change?' she answers.

"What change?" is his quick reply. "You changed it from your hand to mine!" he teases, before handing back the coins.

Children come back as adults and thank the man they call the "Daddy of Cherry Hill" for the time they came in on their way to school, and he "made them go home and wash their face and comb their hair," which they had neglected.

Some of the mobile groceries dispense their goods behind thick plastic windows, dividing employees from customers. Not Mr. Owens. "You have to put trust in the people," he says. "In order to receive respect you have to give it."

Charlene Chester, a regular, seems to agree: "It's nice to come here. Dependable. It is convenient, price is right. Bottom line, they're just like family."

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