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Checking out of the checkout line

Photograph of Allen Brandstein by Kathi O’Leary

After more than two decades of offering up good cheer and wry observations while ringing up groceries and restocking the shelves, Allen Brandstein has retired from Mollie Stone’s. His last day was March 31.

Stoking his decision to leave were two life passages: a bout with colon cancer last year and his first Social Security check, which he received a few weeks ago after turning 62.

“Those things give you an immediate dose of perspective that life is finite,” he says.

Brandstein’s retirement comes only a few months after James Moore left the store’s express line. Both had become like members of the family to many in the neighborhood.

Contemplating his impending retirement, Brandstein penned a few well-considered lines: “It has been my privilege to be a part of the fabric of this neighborhood for over 21 years. As I enter this new chapter in my life, I take with me good friendships and many wonderful memories.”

It’s classic understatement from a friendly neighbor who has been a constant presence for so long. He started at the store in 1988 working on the night crew — a world little known to most shoppers when trucks line up in the parking lot and staffers help unload the goods and stock the store.
Less than a year later he was transferred to the day shift. “They thought that would be a better fit for me,” he says.

The first stop in Brandstein’s retirement will be Panama, where he intends to take a true vacation for most of a month, staying at three different eco-lodges. “I’ve decided the perspective on the next moves in my life will be better from the white sandy beaches than from my own living room couch,” he says. “I’m also taking some time to concentrate on something that’s become increasingly important to me: cultivating my friendships.”

Still, Brandstein says he will miss Mollie Stone’s. “What I’ll miss is the give and take of working in a busy upscale neighborhood place,” he says. “And this job has been a big part of my life. I’ve had Thanksgiving dinners and Passover seders with customers who’ve become friends. I’ve even gotten a couple of dates out of it.”

And he’s beloved by many of his co-workers, including manager David Parrisher — although the two got off to an uncertain start when Parrisher was hired 14 years ago to manage what was then the Grand Central Market. “One of the first things Allen said to me was, ‘You will never make it here,’ ” Parrisher recalls. “I smiled and said, ‘You should go ahead and quit now because you’ll never make it under my iron fisted management style.’ We stared at each other for a few moments — and then burst into laughter. And we quickly became good friends.”

While Brandstein leaves his post without regrets, he’s somewhat hesitant about leaving a place with so many memories. “Six months down the line, if they call me and say, ‘Could you come in for a couple days a week?’ Well, that would be hard to resist,” he said the week before his retirement.

It turns out that might happen.

“I love the guy. He’s like a brother to me,” Parrisher says. “I won’t let him completely retire. I’m retaining him as a part-time retired employee who can fill in for us on occasion. That way, we can still enjoy Allen’s big smile and quick wit for years to come.”