Rutgers bags collection of supermarket artifacts
MetroWest historical society bequeaths rare array of memorabilia
A cache of memorabilia documenting the Jewish families behind New Jersey’s largest supermarket chains is relocating from the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest to Rutgers University’s Rare Books and Special Collections.
Five boxes of material — including business letters, annual reports, vintage photographs, and shopping bags — are now in the custody of Ronald Becker, head of special collections at the Archibald S. Alexander Library on the New Brunswick campus.
“Researchers of all kinds, people interested in business and supermarkets and various aspects of New Jersey history, will be using these,” he said as he inspected his new acquisitions at JHS headquarters on the Aidekman campus in Whippany on Aug. 2.
Joining him was Fernanda Perrone, head of the special collections’ exhibitions program.
Perrone will coordinate an exhibit of the memorabilia when it goes on display this fall in Galley 50, a space on the library’s first floor.
“We have nine large showcases and wall space to display photos and documents and texts to tell the story of the influence of supermarkets in New Jersey,” she said.
The archive includes historic mementos from the Pathmark and ShopRite chains, begun in Newark as a buying cooperative called Wakefern in 1946. Among its early members were Alex Aidekman, Herb Brody, Irving Gladstein, and Milton Perlmutter, all of whom became major supporters of the expanding Jewish community.
Vintage papers from the Kings Supermarket chain founded by Joseph Bildner have already been turned over to the Rutgers archives by his son and daughter-in-law, Allen and Joan Bildner, benefactors of Rutgers’ Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, also on the New Brunswick campus.
Many of the items were amassed by the JHS for its “Who’s Minding the Store?” exhibit that was on display in Whippany in September 2004.
“We were lucky that New Jersey’s three biggest supermarket chains — Kings, ShopRite, and Pathmark — were founded by members of the MetroWest community. It was a natural,” said Linda Forgosh, executive director of JHS, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Forgosh said it is not unusual for historical societies to transfer records to an institution that might be more appropriate.
“In this case we are not getting rid of them. They are just moving a little bit farther away,” she said. “We are keeping Xerox copies and giving the originals away.”
Many of the items relocated to Rutgers can be viewed on the society’s website, www.jhsmw.org.
‘A greater audience’
One special part of the accumulated material is the Zal Venet collection.
Venet, an artist and advertising director who died in 2004, began working for Kings in the late 1940s.
“He created a cartoon character named ‘Mr. Joe’ after Joseph Bildner,” said Forgosh. “Mr. Joe brought a sense of humor and a winning personality to the highly competitive business.”
Later, Venet went to work for ShopRite, putting the slogan “Why pay more?” on the top of many of its newspaper ads. He arranged for such celebrities as Yogi Berra and Jerry Lewis to appear at store openings.
Working for Pathmark, he developed television commercials for the growing chain.
“I am really pleased that all our hard work will have a greater audience, and it is exciting to be part of a new undertaking,” said Forgosh. “Since everybody eats, I know they will be interested in this history.”
Nevertheless, Forgosh became sentimental about passing on one of the key components of the JHS archives. “It stays in my heart, it remains emblazoned in my mind, and it will always be on our website,” said Forgosh, moments before Becker and Perrone hauled away the collection.