Center Street bait shop survives recessions, weather changes
A and C Live Bait Shop, 314 E. Center St., is the oldest bait shop in the state, and the only black-owned bait shop in the Midwest, according to Greg White. White's parents, Acie and Carrie White (the A and C in the name), opened the shop together 42 years ago.
Greg says that when he thinks about the history of the family business, he first ponders all its changes, then wonders how his parents made it through four recessions and eventually focuses on how Milwaukee was when his parents opened the place.
"There were riots all over the city at the time. They had just burned 3rd Street," he says. "It's incredible to me they were even able to start it."
A and C has faced challenges over the years, but the family-run business has always adapted, and it continues to be a positive presence in the city. Each year, A and C is involved in the E.B. Garner "Fishing Clinic and Outing," helping provide fishing equipment to kids in the city. Now in its 13th year, fishing guide E.B. Garner is joined by representatives from the Wisconsin DNR and other professional fishers to instruct youth. This year, the event is Saturday, June 4 in Washington Park, 4145 W. Lisbon Ave., on the west side of the lagoon.
More than 60 years ago, Acie White moved to Milwaukee from Belzoni, Mississippi, to work in the tanneries. Acie and some of his work buddies would go fishing after their shifts, but had a difficult time finding bait in the city. So Acie had to get it for himself.
Acie was already selling minnows out of foot tubs when he and Carrie started the store, and in 1969 they opened as a full-service athletic and outdoor retailer, selling every sporting good from guns and ammo to volleyball equipment. They converted to fishing-only in 1988, which made their son happy.
"The best thing we ever did," Greg says.
Greg started working in his parent's store when he was eight years old. Currently 42, he is teaching a 16-year-old nephew the family business, showing him everything from running credit cards to packaging worms. "And he's interested," says Greg.
Acie, now in his 80s, still works two hours a day in the shop. All 14 kids in the White family – seven boys and seven girls – picked worms for the shop when they were younger. Greg White's brother, Tommy, and several nieces and nephews are still involved. A and C had two employees outside the family over the years, and one of them, Roy Scott, worked at the bait shop for 30 years. Scott owned a farm outside the city and traveled regularly to Milwaukee to care for his mother. He worked at the bait shop when he was in town.
A and C Live Bait makes their own sinkers and weights to sell at the shop and for distribution to other bait shops. Each size weight involves a separate contract with a distributor, starting at one-eightieth on up to five ounces.
Greg White says A and C also makes hooks and lures by the thousands, which are then shipped to a family friend. "It's a bit like a barter system," says Greg. "He paints them, sells what he can, and sends back what our shop needs."
The fishing industry has undergone tremendous changes since A and C first opened. Certain aspects of the White's business were altered to accommodate the changes and others were eliminated altogether.
"Being in this business, you understand how much the weather has changed," says Greg.
The bays on Lake Michigan don't freeze over like they used to, which has made ice fishing virtually nonexistent. Also, it has affected the rainbow smelt run and adversely impacted the White family, as well as a whole way of life for fishing families.
Greg remembers a time when families, thousands of people, would head to Lake Michigan for the smelt run, catching pails and pails of the small, tasty fish.
"The smelt have disappeared here – they might still be up by Sheboygan or in other places – but the smelt run used to be a family thing, a cultural event," says Greg.
Nice find OMC! I will def check this place out now. Smelt is actually doing really well in Lake Michigan. OMC should do a piece on all Milwaukee bait shops, would love to know where all the ma and pa places are these days. I drive down center all the time, I don't know how I could have missed this place!
A & C is a great throw-back to the old school bait shops. You can always get a warm welcome, good advice, fresh bait, and everything you need to go fishing. They survive on the quality of everything they do.
Great story and congrats to this family run business.
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