Centre Street. Postcard courtesy of Mahanoy Area Historical Society.
John Žinčak Smith
In the final chapter of “An Easter Gift,” Fedor Bistrica buys a chocolate Easter bunny for his beloved neighbor, and Fedor likely would have made this purchase in Smith’s Grocery Store, which was owned and operated by Mahanoy City’s most successful Carpatho-Rusyn businessman – John Žinčak Smith.
Born Ioann Žinčak on July 19, 1863 in Rakovcy, Zemplin County, Hungarian Kingdom (present day Slovakia), he moved to Liverpool, England at the age of fourteen, where he changed his name to John Smith. After a number of years learning the shipping industry, Smith came to the United States in the early 1880s, first settled in Boston, then soon after moved to Mahanoy City.
In 1886, Smith was married in St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church in Shenandoah to Anna Schuster (from Prešov, Slovakia), and the couple would go on to have eleven children together: John Jr., Mary, Augustine, Olga, Anna, Tekla, Ella, Nicholas, Emanuel, Vladimir and Irene.
Smith began his career in Mahanoy City in the hotel business, but it was his grocery stores that helped established his fortune. His first grocery was a small storefront on 63 West Centre Street (now 305 West Centre Street), but in 1891, he relocated one block down and opened a larger operation at 419-417 West Centre Street that included a butcher’s shop, notary, and travel agency. Known for its “store at your door” service, Smith’s was particularly popular among the miners because they made deliveries directly to the coal patches. From 1892 to 1908, the 419-417 property served as the Smith family residence as well, which was was located on the second floor.
Kubek’s “Merry Christmas”
Kubek draws upon Smith’s Grocery Store when constructing the setting for his short story, “Merry Christmas.” The plot revolves around a conflict between a son, Vasil’ko, who wants to pursue an education and his father Andrei, who demands that his son work alongside him in the mines. The son rebels, goes off to the university against his father’s wishes, and a rift emerges between the two. With his son away, Andrei comes to value the use of education on his own terms and becomes one of the strongest advocates for a new parish school. On Christmas Eve, the son returns home unannounced, which resolves their differences and brings the entire family great happiness and joy.
Kubek’s story takes place in the town of “M . . .,” which the narrator insists is a “purely fictional town.” In this respect, we should take Kubek at his word, for the protagonist Andrei Bukovage bears little resemblance to John Žinčak Smith in profession or means. Nevertheless, Kubek’s portrait of a small town grocery owes much to Smith’s, whose own store would have looked very much like the one depicted below during Kubek’s first years in the city.
The following excerpts sketch the grocery store and residence of the Bukovage family.
By Emil Kubek
In the town of M . . ., on the corner of Centre and Main Streets, stands a typical, two-story house, like the ones we can see everywhere in Pennsylvania’s small towns. The house is orderly, recently painted, and with clean, full curtains in the windows. The ground floor is set up as a storefront, and on a large, wooden sign, in golden letters, shines the inscription: “Andrew Bukovage’s Gen. Store”. The windows, from both sides of the store doors, are very tastefully filled with goods; one window has meat of all sorts, in another there are food supplies, roots, vegetables, baked goods, and other things, and in every window stands an illuminated Christmas tree with a picture of Santa Claus and an inscription reading “Merry Christmas” and “Christ is Born”!
If somebody would momentarily glance in these windows, even if they didn’t already know it, they would have to guess that Rusyns live in this place because all the other Christians already celebrated Christmas two weeks ago. [. . .]
Everyone should be confident that the town of our story is neither related to a person nor a place but is a purely fictional town!
Above the store on the second story of the building in a nicely decorated front room, stands a ceremoniously set table. Near the window is a decorated Christmas tree. The table is set for five. At four of the places are boxes wrapped with ribbons, obviously Christmas presents. It is already a bit dark, it’s already seven. Even though it’s Christmas Eve, customers are still coming to the store so that everyone could meet their last minute needs for Christmas. Four people work in the store: Mrs. Bukovage, her two daughters, and one butcher. [. . .]
Read the rest of “Merry Christmas.”