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My first memories of the store were when I was 3 years old, back in 1975. Paul’s Serv-Rite Food Market at 4621 Central Avenue is the oldest corner store in our community and has been in the neighborhood for 65 years. Paul’s was there before I was even thought of.
My grandmother lived not even a block away, and she’d have my dad go here to get little stuff she wanted. When I was a teenager, I used to stop there to buy snacks for myself before returning home after school at East Tech High School. Then I had an after-school job, and I would still stop there at Paul’s to buy some snacks for myself before going to work. When I was in my thirties, I had two children of my own enrolled in George Washington Carver School, and we would have parent meetings and always needed refreshments. So I would take our flier to show Mr. Paul to ask for donations of juice, cookies, chips, pop, or doughnuts. At that time Mr. Paul was still living, God bless his soul.
Paul Arnold died in 2016. Phil Arnold, Paul’s son, is the owner now. The customers are mostly neighborhood residents or people who used to live here. The Central community doesn’t have a regular grocery store, so stores like Paul’s are really valuable. But the store building is old and needs repairs, and people break in and steal food, drink, and money – even though Phil, like his dad Mr. Paul, would make arrangements with customers to barter or get them what they need even if they don’t have money or food stamps. Phil and his family have had a really hard time getting funds to help repair the store, but that may change soon. I’m hopeful that Paul’s Serv-Rite will continue to serve the community for many years to come.
History of Paul’s
I was told the store originally started in 1957 on East 37th and Central Avenue, and then it was moved to East 39th and Scovill (we call it Community College Avenue now). All in all, Paul Arnold ran his store at four different locations in Central over the years, but Paul’s Serv-Rite has been at the current location since 1980, according to a 1994 Plain Dealer article about the store. Mr. Paul told the Plain Dealer that it all started when he left the Army in 1957, couldn’t find a job, and didn’t have any other experience besides working in grocery stores. So he bought one.
Back in 1994, when that article was published, Mr. Paul had recently been honored by the Friendly Inn Settlement House, a community support nonprofit up the street. He regularly provided food for baskets to share with those in need, and he was a “bright light” for the community but also very humble. He didn’t especially want to be honored.
Mr. Paul’s legacy lives on through his son Phil Arnold. Phil currently owns and runs the store, and he’s been helping out since he was a kid. “I was 11 years old when I started learning how to stock up the shelves and do general cleaning and cashiering,” said Phil. Phil helped at the store throughout his teenage years, had a career in IT, and then returned to the store in 2012 to help his aging father run the store. He’s been there ever since, and he says that helping out his parents was the right thing to do.
Generations of Central neighbors have come to shop at Paul’s. The store sells mostly snacks, beer, wine, juices, water, pop, a few fruits and vegetables, tobacco items, a couple of household cleaners, and a few hot foods: corned beef sandwiches, polish boys, and fried chicken wings. In the wintertime, you can also find hats and gloves here. So it’s not a whole lot in this little cute corner store, but it feels like a lot to the community family.
A place for community
Some neighbors use the store for their regular shopping, and for others Paul’s Serv-Rite is a place to stop for snacks, quick errands, and conversation. The store is like that friend we all need sometimes – there when we need it every day.
There’s a sense of community here at Paul’s. It’s not just for shopping. I was part of an event with FARE which brought masks, hand sanitizer, and other Covid supplies to customers at Paul’s. The bulletin board is where we find out about nearby community events, like things happening at the Friendly Inn up the street. People also hear about things by word of mouth at Paul’s, because it’s the kind of place where you run into neighbors and talk.
For example, last summer I was part of the city’s Vision Zero team. That’s the city’s plan for reducing traffic accidents, especially accidents hurting pedestrians. I used to be a crossing guard for the kids walking to and from George Washington Carver Elementary, and that’s how I got involved as a neighborhood advocate. Anyway, last summer we had an event right by Paul’s, where community members could tell us about how safe (or not) the nearby roads are and whether it’s safe to cross the street here. This is the kind of place where a lot of people in the community come, so it makes sense to have these kinds of community events at or near Paul’s. And I really hope we can get some street changes, like a speed bump, to slow things down by the store – kids have been hit crossing the street here.
Phil, like his dad Paul, also gives kindly and generously to the community. Like I said, he would donate snacks for parent meetings, and these gracious donations were so appreciated by us moms at the school, because we sometimes didn’t have the money or food stamps to provide something to eat, and the school didn’t always provide it.
Sometimes people can’t afford to buy what they need at Paul’s, and Phil will sometimes make a special arrangement. He doesn’t want people to have to steal to eat. Instead, sometimes he lets people do a little work to earn what they need – kind of a barter system. A community member, Kaddo, currently does chores here in the store to earn what he wants. Phil does what he can to help people.
Challenges, and what’s next
If I had the money I would definitely give it to Phil to repair the front door windows. They’re broken, because someone robbed the store. “I do not want to have a metal shutter for the doors,” said Phil, “because the robbers will still break into them, too.” Last spring, Phil says there were several break-ins right in a row. He kept replacing the glass of the front door, but after it was broken repeatedly, he left the makeshift wooden boards in place. He says it slows down burglars, and that together with his alarm system means he can know there’s an issue before too much harm is done.
The Paul’s Serv-Rite building is old and could use some repairs. Phil says he could really use another aisle for more goods – the tidy shelves are packed to the brim with items for sale – and he’d also like to upgrade the area where hot and cold fresh foods are served. The current cooler, which he says dates to the 40s or 50s, can’t be used because it relies on a constant stream of cold water, which is too expensive at today’s water utility rates. Right now, Phil doesn’t know when he’ll be able to make these improvements.
Phil has talked to Councilman Richard Starr about making physical improvements to the store, and in early 2023 Phil is planning to apply to the city’s Storefront Renovation Program for a grant to help upgrade the exterior of the store. The city is helping with suggesting new designs, like a glass storefront, but those details have yet to be worked out. If he gets approved, Phil will be eligible to get a 50% rebate of his expenses, up to a rebate of $50,000. So, Phil would have to finance it himself to start, but if he were to spend $100,000 on redesigning the store’s exterior, the city would grant him a $50,000 rebate.
Meanwhile, Phil keeps on running this important little store, and I’m going to be a part of it as much as I can. One thing I want to work on is helping Phil make a new connection for bean and buttermilk pies. Before the pandemic, a brother from the mosque used to sell the most delicious bean and buttermilk pies through the store. Brother Ali got sick, though, and we’d need to make a new connection to bring this bit of happiness back to the store. That’s the kind of little thing — delicious food made by a community member and enjoyed by other community members – that makes Paul’s a place of special connection.
No matter what, the store keeps going, and it’s a real cornerstone of the Central community, like it has been for generations. I recently saw an old friend of my two children who works at the store as a hot food chef, runner, stock person, and general cleaner. He’s doing the same exact thing Phil started out doing, and I am so very glad Phil has someone he knows and loves – Andre’ is his name. And he’s from the community, too – and that’s what it’s all about.
La Queta Worley was a participant in The Land’s community journalism program and is a Cleveland Documenter.