In his 78 years in the neighborhood, Sal Sendik has seen a lot of things come and go on Downer Avenue, where he has worked in his father’s grocery, Sendik’s, since age twelve. At fifteen, he graduated from Marquette High School and at age sixteen he was put in charge of the store while his father took off for Italy for three months. While he has a degree from Marquette University, and served in the military, Sal has been devoted to the store ever since, along with his son Tony.
Sal often turns the conversation to his father, whose memory he reveres. His father came to America as a child from Sicily. He and his four brothers, their last name was Balistreri, settled in the Third Ward, living in a house so small that they had to work and sleep in shifts. His father had a minimal education and went to work selling fruit along the streetcar lines. Soon he bought a truck and delivered produce to his customers, carrying the orders to their doorsteps. One lady he delivered to noticed that he was limping and suggested he open a store so she could come to him, instead of him delivering to her. Even when delivering produce Sal’s father had a knack for attracting interesting people. The woman who made the suggestion was the sister-in-law of the world famous violinist, Jascha Heifetz.
At her suggestion, Sal’s father and his brothers opened a store on Oakland and Capitol in 1929. By 1933 Sal’s father and two of the brothers leased space for selling produce at an A & P on Downer Avenue (the A & P sold only packaged goods.)
The Downer store had a well-to-do clientele. Sal remembers some ladies who arrived at the store by limousines, driven by their chauffeurs. The chauffeurs would wait while the ladies shopped and then got into the back seat. His father was able to buy the shops of adjacent small businesses and expanded Sendik’s to the current size.
In his interview with the BLC field school Sal divulges the secret of how the Balistreris came to be called Sendik. There is a clue in one of the shop windows of the store.
Sal’s father never stopped learning and reading. He was a lover of art and opera, and his clientele appreciated talking with him. “Everybody respected my father,” Sal says. At the back of the store, one might see his father in a deep discussion with one of the neighborhood’s wealthy industrialists, perched on an apple crate. Sal misses his father. “He was smartest man I knew. An honest, honorable man.”
- Sal Sendik, interview by Daniel Cho and Yuko Nakamura, Milwaukee, June 20, 2013.