Across the United States, the success of Syrians in the peddling business led to the blossoming of the Syrian American corner grocery store. Indianapolis was no exception. Many of those who were peddlers in 1900 became dry goods store operators by 1915. That year, there were at least 18 Arabic-speaking grocers in Indianapolis–seven of them had the last name of Freije.
Peddlers were natural grocers. They understood how to move merchandise and what customers wanted to buy. But just as importantly, they built the supply networks necessary to open a store with little capital. They knew people who could lend them the money and goods to stock their shelves. Once new store owners succeeded, they would help others, especially people from their family or other Syrians from their village.
Even though men were almost always listed as the owners of these stores, women were essential to their success. For example, the city directory named Abraham Freije as operator of the store on Willard Street, but the 1910 U.S. Census indicated that his sister, Maggie, also worked there. Similarly, the sons of Sadie Hider were the listed in the city directory as store owners, but their mother also provided capital and labor to make them run. Wives, sisters, and mothers of male grocers sometimes did double duty, cooking and cleaning at home as well as staffing the store.
Some Syrian groceries prided themselves on obtaining the very best produce, seeds, and other items. In 1915, for example, the Abraham Brothers, located at 728 East Vermont in Lockerbie Square, competed in multiple categories at the state fair, and consistently won, placed, or showed. They got first prize for Old White Corn and Old White Flint; third place for golden popcorn; first for Red Fultz wheat; third for Black Oats; first for Timothy Seed; and second for White Seneca Beauty Potatoes. The winning streak continued in 1916 with quinces, White Burley tobacco, and York Imperial apples.
The corner store was not always located on an actual street corner. But it was almost always small in size. The refrigeration revolution transformed the dry goods stores of the early 1900s into true grocery stores. Frigidaire display cases replaced ice boxes. In addition to the grains, canned goods, lard, tobacco products, and notions offered by the dry goods store, groceries sold fresh meat, poultry, and milk.
Corner grocery stores also functioned as essential financial institutions. Just like today, many unbanked Americans cashed their paychecks at the stores. Even more importantly during the Great Depression, the corner grocery helped to stave off hunger. Store owners offered temporary credit to customers. When the customer got their paycheck, they would sign it over to the store, pay their bill, and buy more groceries. When the customer was unemployed, the store would sometimes carry them for months at a time.
Because stores always had cash on hand, it could also be a dangerous business. Robberies were a regular part of life for many Syrian grocers, who were sometimes killed during the stick-ups. At 9:30 PM on Saturday, September 17, 1932, Sam Ajamie was working with his brother and another Syrian in his store on 1448 Roosevelt Avenue when two men came into the store and asked for fish. “Before Sam Ajamie could answer, both men drew revolvers,” according to a September 19 article in the Indianapolis Star. The grocers all raised their hands, but one of the thieves shot Sam Ajamie anyway. “Ajamie then seized the bandit’s revolver and wrested it from him,” according to the police report. Ajamie chased the men out of the store and went to City Hospital for treatment. But he was shot in the chest and he did not recover. He left behind six children. Ajamie’s funeral took place at St. Philip Neri Church and he was buried at Holy Cross cemetery.
The corner grocery business was not without its challenges, but Arab Indianapolis would not have been the same without it. By 1935, there were at least 43 Syrian and Lebanese groceries in Indianapolis. The Corey, Freije, Haboush, Hider, and Mesalam families owned multiple stores. One woman, Mrs. Fannie Lautif, was listed as store owner. She was a widow. Her store was located at 1947 Ludlow, on the east side of town just north of the Peerless Foundry Company, which made coal, gas, and oil furnaces.
These grocery stores were a cornerstone of Arab Indianapolis society. Many of the grocers were members of St. George Syrian Orthodox Church and associated groups such as the Knights of St. George and the Ladies Auxiliary. The money made and the know-how gained in running these stores also supported the establishment of clubs such as the Syrian American Brotherhood and Binette L’Yom (Women of Today). Indianapolis became a center of Arab American life in the 1930s at least in part because of the success of the Syrian corner grocery.
Research assistance for this post was provided by Jay Brodzeller, Josh Chitwood, Emma Eldridge, and Prof. Jeff Wilson.