July 30, 2019 – Margot Abeloe, the feisty German immigrant who ran Spreckels Emporium for decades, wasn’t shy about her feelings.
Take too long to shut the glass door on one of the vintage latch-closing coolers and you’d hear about it. Try to take a photo of her photogenic shop and you got an earful. Let the old-school screen door slam and you’d catch hell in accented English.
Her head didn’t rise too far past the counter from where she sold uncommon candy bars, cold beer and 65-cent bologna sandwiches. But whatever she may have lacked in stature, she more than made up for with her Spreckels loyalty and unapologetic directness.
Which makes it ironic, surprising and sweet that her three granddaughters never knew Margot wanted them to take over the Spreckels Emporium at the corner of Hatton and Spreckels avenues. At least not until after Margot, who married their grandpa Jack, passed away two years ago, at age 88, more than a half century after she came to Spreckels.
Jenny Abeloe is one of those grandkids-turned-shopkeepers.
“We had no idea,” she says, turning to look over the repainted and re-arranged interior of the Emporium, which was built in 1899 and her family partially or fully owned since 1912. It reopened softly April 17.
Her sister Jaclyn Abeloe elaborates, “She was very private, even with us, and stubborn. My mom and my dad discussed it with her and Grandfather Jack,” she says. “They decided it was best to skip a generation and give it to the girls, which was a total surprise for us.”
Much like the store can be for new visitors.
In Spreckels, population 673, and its landmark Emporium, much has stayed the same for a long time.
Neighborly interactions prevail. A timelessness clings to the Rockwellian fire station and post office next to the Emporium. Giant silos, which once held the sugar beets that gave the company town its reason to be, face those buildings over neat rows of iceberg lettuce. On one of the Emporium’s exterior walls, a red-and-white “better with Coke” mural covers some of the building’s bricks.
Inside, on a shelf near the register, Spreckels Sugar in yellow-and-blue boxes sits beneath stars-and-stripes pennants. Century-old registers predate more historic Coke paraphernalia. Gumballs, 25 cents each, fill a big jar. The smell—part sawdust, part coffee, all nostalgia—is exactly the same. Beneath slow-moving ceiling fans, original floors and their markings reveal past counter positioning. Margot’s “honor system” coffee station still invites people to pitch in a donation for self-serve joe. (The cash goes in the cigar box.)
But much has changed. The coffee station features Keurig machines instead of a heated urn. Margot’s old delivery vehicle, a 1955 Jeep Willys Station Wagon, now sits on the floor of the store, refurbished, with cards and craft soaps on its back gate; it was backed in and parked when the family reinstalled historically accurate, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.
The dusty box of banana Jell-O is finally gone. The domestic beer selection now includes Alvarado Street Brewery Biggie’s Blueberry Brunch Bonanza and Mai Thai P.A.s in tallboys. An impressive Salinas Valley-driven wine selection enjoys informative tasting notes and fills several racks. Still more local brands—Glaum eggs, Sweets of Eden homemade caramels, Beefy Boys Jerky, among others—populate shelves. And while some employees and knowing locals may shake their heads, nobody scolds you when you let the door slam.
When Jenny was a kid, her grandma Margot would allow her one candy bar after little Jenny was done stocking the impressive candy section. She says she would take forever to decide which one she wanted because the choices were that good—they still are—and the candy was that precious.
She estimates she would think it over her decision for an hour. When asked how many hours it took her and her family to reinvent the Emporium, she shakes her head. “I can’t even count,” she says.
Clearly this reclamation project is precious, partly because of sweet memories.
“We had to keep it going,” she says. “We couldn’t let it flounder.”
She and her sisters Jaclyn Abeloe and Shannon Burgess, who along with their families built out the remodel and commute from out of state to tend to the store on weekends, love hearing Margot stories.
“I learn something new from our customers every day here,” Jenny says.
Jaclyn lists other joys in resurrecting the place, a project which took more than eight months, and is ongoing.
“It’s really been two parts,” she says. “Number one: coming together as a family and taking on this big task, to feel like we are not forgetting the quirks that [Margot] had with the store, [and] giving it a second chance and a second life.
“The second piece: The community support and reaction to it being open again.”
Jaclyn wonders whether Margot would approve of some of the updates.
“She might say, ‘We don’t need to do that, it’s too fancy,” Jaclyn says. “We’re always thinking, ‘Would Margot like this? Would she be proud?’ We won’t make a decision unless we thought she would have approved—and, in the end, the point of the Emporium is to serve the community, to be a staple for Spreckels, which was always what she wanted most of all.”
That much is most certainly happening here, all over again, which means Margot would love what they’ve done and what they’re doing.
The slamming door, not so much.
The Spreckels Emporium’s current hours are 11am-6pm Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday). More at thespreckelsemporium.com.
Mark C. Anderson is a freelance writer based in Seaside (and in his backpack). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @MontereyMCA.