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'GRANT GIRLS' TURN GLOOM INTO FOND MEMORY

"The Grant Girls" lunched for the 169th time Monday.

They broke Italian bread at the Macaroni Company on Maple Road in Amherst and shared memories of the former W.T. Grant Co. store at the Northtown Plaza.

"If it hadn't closed, I think we'd all still be there," said Angie Antonucci of the Town of Tonawanda who, like most of the others, worked for years at the Grant store, which closed in 1976.

"We didn't want to drift apart when that happened so we pledged to meet for lunch once a month," said Margaret Hoeltke of the Town of Tonawanda.

The Grant Girls, ages 55 to 74, have met to share each others' lives -- the good times, the bad, the births, marriages, deaths. First they met in each other's homes, then in restaurants.

"We've all been married. Several of us have been widowed since we've been meeting but we don't have any divorces," Mrs. Hoeltke said. "One of us lost a son this summer. One of us had a breast removed recently. Several of us have had heart attacks."

Monday was one of the good times -- the annual Christmas lunch, when gifts and news of children and grandchildren were swapped. All the favors and cookies were homemade by the Grant Girls.

"The 'Girls' were very conscientious workers," said Kay Palmer Meginley of Clarence, office manager of the Grant store when it closed.

"I was there when Kay got the word that the store was going to close," said Bea Visciano of Amherst, then in the store's curtain department. "It was a sad, quiet day."

"Did you know we were called 'merchandisers' in those days?" asked Mrs. Antonucci, who was in several departments, including notions and shoes. "We did all the ordering -- not just the sales. Actually, we ran the store."

Louise Strom of Amherst remembered when she made 95 cents an hour (about 1960) -- and received "a nickel raise." Willa Arbogast of Amherst, who was in draperies and domestics, said she started in 1956 at 70 cents an hour.

"We didn't make much money but we had a lot of fun," said Mitzi Howarth of Kenmore, who was in shipping and receiving at the store.

"It's something that we've stayed together this long," said Carol Jarecke of Williamsville, who began in the stationary department and was manager of several departments when the Grant's closed.

The Grant Girls have no elected officers -- and no dues. Lunch dates are chosen, and reservations made, by their two "great organizers" -- Mrs. Visciano, and Ruth Drdul of Amherst, who worked in Grant's men and boys' department.

"There was no bickering then, there's no bickering now," said Ann Kahn of Eggertsville, formerly with the credit department.

Charlotte Rutter of the Town of Tonawanda is new to the Girls (originally 10, now 18) but remembers the Grant store and its merchandisers well.

"I used to see two of the 'Girls' there. They were faces then. Now I know their names."

Marie Krauss of Tonawanda (men's and women's underwear) and Rosemary Schwab of the Town of Tonawanda (dresses and lingerie) reminisced.

"We knew all our regular customers. We ordered specially for them. We took care of them, we were nice to them," Mrs. Schwab said. "You don't find that in stores anymore."

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