At the top of Queen Anne Hill, on the corner of Queen Anne Avenue North and West Boston Street, stood a small, independent grocery beloved by many on the Hill. The owner of the store was Morris Mezistrano, a self-made man and extraordinary entrepreneur.
Morris’ story is an inspiring one. He overcame the hardships of his youth to lead a remarkable life. He was born in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1909. His father was a well-to-do businessman who owned an import-export business and a successful store. But his family lost everything when trapped in the chaos of the First World War. His father was killed, his father’s store was bombed, and their business and all their material possessions were destroyed. Earlier, his sister had moved to Seattle to enter into an arranged marriage. When Morris was nine years old, his mother and her four sons, including Morris, escaped Turkey and made their way to Seattle, sponsored by Morris’ sister.
When Morris arrived in Seattle, he spoke only Ladino (a dialect of Spanish) and a little French. The family lived near 24th Avenue East and Yesler, and Morris attended Pacific School, where foreigners went. When he was 14 years old, in the fifth grade, he quit school. He said he was embarrassed by his big feet and was much taller than others in his grade. He began his sales career, “as a hustler selling bananas and oranges” at the Pike Place Market, earning about $2 a day. However, it got so cold there in the winter he decided to find a new location. So, as he explained in his Oral History given to the Queen Anne Historical Society in 1992, he walked up Queen Anne Hill and talked to a man running a grocery store, John Duggans. He said that he was a first-class produce person, and would he rent him space for a fruit stand? Duggans agreed, but soon moved on. Morris stayed and flourished.
S&M stands for Sam and Morris. The business began as a partnership of Morris and his older brother Sam, but Morris bought Sam’s share and ran the store himself, keeping his brother’s initial on the marquee. The store was originally located at 2213 Queen Anne Avenue; five years later it moved to 5 Boston; and finally, in 1948, it moved to the corner of Queen Anne Avenue and West Boston Street, where it remained until 1989.
The S&M Market was known for its fresh fruit and produce. Morris began each day around 7:30 a.m. with a visit to his favorite produce wholesaler, Pacific Fruit, where he handpicked what he would sell that day. His strategy was to undercut the competition with lower prices. As he said in his Oral History, “Competition never bothered me because I sold cheaper.” When nearby grocers ran out of produce or needed more, he’d sell to them. He sold directly to Seattle Pacific University, Queen Anne High School, and while it was nearby, the Orthopedic Hospital. He displayed his fresh produce and flowers along the sidewalk by his store.
“Hand-written signs proclaim products and prices in often unorthodox spellings: ’Raidishes’, ‘Zukini’, ‘Necketarings’, ’the best patatoes in the world!’”
Key to Morris’ success was his exuberant, outgoing personality, his wit, and his love of his customers. His son, Jerry Mezistrano, and granddaughter, Amanda Mezistrano, described him as gregarious, highly intelligent, creative, well informed, and a great storyteller.
He also had innate business acumen which served him well through good times and bad. During the Great Depression, while other merchants on Queen Anne were going out of business, he survived because early on he bought the building that housed his store. He had no rent to pay, and he leased adjoining space in his building to other tenants. For many years, he leased the space currently rented to a Laundromat to the Queen Anne News. The Queen Anne News was at that time owned and operated by John S. Murray. Morris entered into a savvy business arrangement with Murray whereby Morris provided office space at reduced rent in exchange for an ad each week on the front page of the paper.
In other ways, Morris’ business practices were entirely unorthodox and improvised.
“Every evening, Morris (nobody calls him ‘Mr. Mezistrano’) takes home the daily receipts — an unruly fist full of bills — in a paper bag. Employees figure their own wages and taxes and take their salaries in cash from the till.”
In the evenings, at home, it would be Jerry’s and his sister’s responsibility to tally the cash and stamp the checks that arrived in Morris’ paper bag. According to Jerry Mezistrano, who worked at the store for many years, Morris paid many of his supplier’s bills out of the till. Morris was known to make a note of amounts owed by customers short of cash with a pencil on the back of a cigarette carton and to prepare leases on the side of a paper bag. Another recollection of Jerry’s is of Bill Cleveland, Morris’ accountant. Once a month, Cleveland would stop at the store, and Morris would hand him the S&M’s records for the month in a paper bag. Cleveland would sort through the paperwork and turn it into a financial statement.
Morris was well known in the community for his generosity and charity. On Mondays during the Great Depression, Morris would leave 25 to 30 bags of left over groceries by his store, which were picked up and delivered to the needy living in Hooverville. Often, at the end of the business day, Morris would leave unsold produce and dented canned goods outside the store for anyone in need to retrieve. Over the years, Morris received many accolades and awards. Once he was chosen Man of the Year for Queen Anne.
Morris retired in 1985, leaving the S&M in the hands of his son Jerry. Morris said at the time, “Thriftway started staying open late, and then 24 hours, and I said it was time for me to get out.” Jerry Mezistrano operated the store for another four years before it closed, the end of an era. The building was then leased to Starbucks, the beginning of a new era. Morris passed away in 2008 at the age of 99, sharp until the end. When asked what his best year was, Morris replied, “Every year was the best year. I enjoyed every moment.”
A special thanks Jerry and Amanda Mezistrano for generously sharing their memories of Morris Mezistrano for this article. This article is the third in a series.
JAN HADLEY is a a member of the Queen Anne Historical Society board of directors. For more information, to view source material for this article, or to read past articles in this series, go to qahistory.org.