At some point during our formative years, we learn the unsettling truth that nothing is going to last forever, and some things won’t even make it through a decent portion of our own lives. The best athletes get old, our favorite TV shows go off the air, and even the world’s most successful rock and roll band can split up. For me, the harsh revelation that all of my surroundings were temporary came 49 years ago when I found out that the Brick ‘o Gold, my most vital downtown Millbrae business, was shutting its doors forever. The news of the Brick’s closing came as a shock not only to me, but to almost anyone who had grown up in Millbrae during the 1950’s or ‘60’s. The Brick ‘o Gold was more than just small convenience store…for kids like me, unlike Safeway, the Ritz Shop, Hillcrest Pharmacy or Belvini Shoes, the Brick was ours.
Established sometime in the late 1940’s, the Brick ‘o Gold was what we would now call a hybrid…part small grocery store, part coffee shop, part soda fountain. Located at 441 Broadway, the Brick was crammed between Millbrae Stationery and Highland Liquors. Overseeing the enterprise was a man named Howard Cobb, a middle-aged fellow with thinning hair, always dressed in a white apron. One of Howard’s most distinguishing physical features was his pale skin color, likely a result of him rarely leaving the place during its 7am to 10pm daily hours. Howard’s devotion to his position as the Brick’s proprietor was legendary, as his consecutive days behind the counter was probably longer than the combined streaks of Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken. When a 1961 rainstorm knocked out Millbrae’s electricity, Howard Cobb stayed at his familiar post, operating the Brick by candlelight.
Although the Brick ‘o Gold sold milk, butter, eggs and most of the other basic food items, in addition to offering a small lunch menu, the real magnet for kids was the Brick’s impressive candy selection. A 10 foot by 6 foot shelf with six layers was home to the largest assortment of gum, chocolate bars, licorice sticks and all-day suckers ever assembled in Millbrae, before or since. Alongside the big name candy novelties produced by Hershey, Mars and Nestle were some of the more exotic items like “Atomic Fireballs,” “Jawbreakers,” “Red Hots,” and “Boston Baked Beans.” Most selections were available for a nickel, but there was also plenty of penny candy that could be had even cheaper. Since the Millbrae Theater sold much of the same merchandise at double the cost, no kid in his right mind would go to a Kiddie Matinee without stopping at the Brick ‘o Gold first. If Howard had also sold popcorn, the Millbrae Theater’s profit margin would have crumbled.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that if I were sent 50 years back in time, I could still easily navigate my way around the Brick ‘o Gold…blindfolded. When entering the Brick, there was a 40 foot long aisle, between two shelves of groceries that led to the epicenter of the store. There, on your left would be the counter that held two cash registers, on the right would be the candy shelf, behind which stood the ice cream freezer. Continuing a bit further, on the left was the lunch counter, which held five stools. Additional seating could be found in the right-hand corner of the Brick, as past the candy counter were a couple of booths, usually the territory of older boys, off limits to the younger lads. The space behind the cash register and lunch counter functioned as one big work station for Howard, as he effortlessly bounced between preparing and serving foot-long hot dogs and ringing up candy and grocery purchases. Howard was not a one man band, as he did have help in the person of a gal named Nell, who, much to our continuous annoyance, would charge us sales tax on every transaction, something Howard never did. While sitting at the counter, one could see various fountain drink dispensers lined up against the wall. In addition to Coke and 7up was something called a “Millbrae Bomb” and another labeled “Dragon-Fly.” I never tried either one, but I did ask for cherry syrup in my Coke, and felt pretty cool in doing so. Throughout the Brick were handmade signs, assumingly written by Howard himself, which would advise us to any specials available that day. I remember seeing a tray of day old donuts, that were accompanied by a sign, “Today’s Bargain…Donuts 2 for 5 Cents.” The next day, the sign was updated, “Yesterday’s bargain, today’s special…Donuts 2 for 5 cents.” That sign, along with the donuts, stayed there for years (hopefully not the same donuts).
Unfortunately, there was a bit of a dark side to the Brick ‘o Gold experience. For some youngsters, the Brick was the setting for their first, and hopefully only foray into the world of crime. As reasonably priced the Brick’s candy was, there were those among us that couldn’t resist taking advantage of the lax security standards of the store, and would slip a Milky Way into their pockets while Howard was busy slicing a tomato. Copping merchandise from the Brick was considered a rite of passage in Millbrae, often done on a dare. It pains me to confess that I’m not exactly approaching this issue with clean hands, although my one offense was not premeditated. One afternoon, I was at the Brick’s candy counter, in the middle of making that day’s selections when Howard complained that my bicycle was blocking the front door, and ordered me outside to move it. When I got to my bike, I realized I was holding a Look Bar, a Big Hunk and box of Milk Duds. I jumped on my bicycle, and just kept riding…Jesse James never made an easier escape. But that ended my life as a shoplifter…unlike Butch Cassidy, I quit while I was ahead.
Like most other kids, my visits to the Brick ‘o Gold came during summer days, weekends or after school. One day, in a flash of out of the box thinking, I decided to ride my bike downtown before school, and bring back a bag of Brick candy prior to the first period bell. Arriving at the Brick minutes after its 7am opening, I witnessed a side of the Brick that I never knew existed. The place was full of policemen, postal workers, firemen and cab drivers all enjoying a hearty breakfast, while Howard Cobb, obviously in his element, was joyfully “slinging hash” behind the counter. It was the only time I felt out of place at the Brick.
In early 1965, Millbrae went through a construction boom that included a brand new complex of commercial enterprises on the 500 block of Broadway. Suddenly, most of the businesses in the older downtown area had freshly minted counterparts to contend with. But despite the appearance of Britts, Walgreens, Millbrae Square Delicatessen and Baskin Robins, it was generally felt that the Brick ‘o Gold’s business model was still unique enough to withstand the competition. So it came as an unpleasant surprise in September of 1965 when the word spread the Brick would be shutting down at the end of the month. Not wanting to believe it, I immediately ran downtown to find out for myself, only to have the news confirmed in the Brick’s front window, courtesy of one of Howard’s handwritten signs. The next couple of weeks were almost surreal, as Howard simply opened his doors each day, and allowed his inventory to dwindle down to almost nothing. Seeing the empty shelves and the bare walls was almost too much for me to take, but I still went there every day, almost like I was attending a never ending funeral. I wasn’t alone in my grief. One of my best friends made a huge score, buying an entire cardboard box of Double Bubble for pennies on the dollar, only to find himself unwilling to chew up any of the gum…he realized he had purchased a priceless souvenir, and instead kept the entire box intact for many years. As the month came to an end, the Brick ‘o Gold’s lights were shut off, and an era quietly came to a close.
I never learned why the Brick closed, although I heard plenty of rumors. Some said that the Board of Health shut Howard Cobb down due to unsanitary conditions, while others said his appliances and electrical systems were not up to code, and Howard could not afford the mandatory upgrades. There was speculation of rental increases and decreasing revenue, and even talk of some embezzlement on the part of Nell…but whatever the reason, it really didn’t matter. The Brick was gone, and so was Howard Cobb. Where Howard went, I never knew for sure. I was told he went on to become a milkman, which would have been just his luck to latch on to another dying occupation. The last known sighting of him was at Belivini Shoes, where Howard was seen buying a pair of cowboy boots, which at least suggests that he was finally spending some time outdoors.
For me personally, the timing of the Brick’s demise was somewhat symbolic. I had just entered Taylor Junior High, marking the official end to my childhood. Like Little League and Cub Scouts, the Brick ‘o Gold was a boyhood touchstone, and it’s almost fitting that I could no longer return there.
A few weeks after the Brick vacated the premises, Round Table Pizza took over the location, and to its everlasting credit, is still there. But during its early days, I wonder if anyone ever went in there and tried to order a “Millbrae Bomb”?