Morris Bober opens his store on a cold November morning at 6 a.m., after dragging in crates of milk and bag of rolls left by delivery men. An old Polish woman is at the door and he sells her a roll for three cents. After she is gone, he heats up the store. A young girl whose mother is a drunk comes in and asks for food on credit and although Morris initially wants to say no, he gives the girl the food. He notes the drunk woman's debt on a piece of paper, reducing it slightly so that Morris's wife, Ida, will not be too upset. Morris thinks to himself that business is rough, as he awaits the arrival of his upstairs tenant, Nick Fuso, who usually buys ham and bread each morning.
Morris has owned the grocery for twenty-one years and it has basically remained the same during those years. As the morning passes, Nick does not arrive and Morris sees him returning home with a bag from a different grocery store. Morris feels depressed. A few customers enter, but buy little. Breitbart, a light bulb peddler, comes in for a cup of tea. After Breitbart leaves, Morris's wife Ida comes downstairs. At age fifty-one, she is nine years younger than Morris. Despite her younger age, her aching feet keep her from working frequently. Morris tells her that business has been slow. Together, they discuss their desire that someone will buy the store. Ida reminds Morris that Julius Karp, a man who owns a liquor store on the street, telephoned a man who might be interested. She hopes the buyer will come today. Ida chastises her husband for smoking and tells him to go upstairs to eat and rest.
Upstairs, Morris eats and reflects that business is so bad lately because a new grocery store owned by a German, Schmitz, opened across the street. A tailor used to work there, but after he left, Karp, who owns the property, leased it to Schmitz. Morris asked Karp why he could be so unkind to him, but Karp told him not to worry. Morris had worried for about a month and then after Schmitz's store opened, he found that it was as bad as he thought.
The narrative cuts to Helen Bober, Ida and Morris's daughter. She is on the subway coming home from work when Nat Pearl approaches and asks if she is mad at him. Helen tells him no. She reflects that during the summer she had felt in love with Nat, so she agreed to sleep with him, thus losing her virginity. Later she realized that Nat only wanted to have sex and not to form a meaningful relationship. Since then, she had shunned him. Nat and Helen grew upon the same block since Nat's parents, Sam and Goldie Pearl, owned a nearby candy store, but Nat had managed to graduate from Columbia University and now attends law school. Helen gets off the subway and heads home. She passes the Pearls' candy store and also Karp's liquor store, the two stores owned by Jews on an otherwise gentile block. Karp used to have a poor shoe store, but his liquor business made him very successful.
Morris wakes and heads downstairs just before Helen walks in. The buyer has not come. Ida sends Helen upstairs to eat. Helen hates their small dark apartment and reflects that her father has never really left their block since her brother, Ephraim, died. Morris comes up and offers to let Helen keep more of her paycheck, but she refuses. Morris feels shame that he cannot send her to college, which is her dream.
In the evening, business picks up. Karp comes in and asks if the buyer came. Morris has felt mildly annoyed with Karp since Karp rented his space to another grocer. Karp tells Morris that he has seen a car pass by several times and thinks that they want to rob him. Karp, although richer, is too cheap to have a phone and asks Morris to call the cops in a few minutes, after Karp hollers to him. Morris agrees and Karp leaves. Nick Fuso's wife, Tessie, enters and buys some food to make amends for her husband shopping elsewhere in the morning. Morris hears Karp call to him and he starts moving toward the phone. As he does so, he sees two men with handkerchiefs on their faces enter the store. One has a pistol. They take the money from the register and ask where the rest is. Morris insists that he is poor and has no more money. The man with the gun calls Morris a lying Jew and strikes him across the face. The other perpetrator protests his partner's movements and immediately offers Morris some water in a cup. The men search the store, but find no more money. The man with the gun again questions Morris for money, but when Morris offers none he strikes him again. As Morris passes out, he thinks that it is a fitting end to his unlucky day.
This opening chapter introduces the novel's characters, setting, as well as the plot event that sets the story moving. The book opens with Morris Bober unlocking his cold store at six am for a waiting Polish woman. This opening is significant. First, as Morris brings the Polish woman inside, so too does he bring the narrative gaze. The movement of the narration from outside to inside immediately locates the reader in the primary setting for the novel: the grocery. The view of the world that the reader shall become to learn will be that of the grocer, first Morris Bober and then Frank Alpine. The immediate movement into the grocery thus seems highly appropriate.
Morris Bober's opening act also is crucial to his personality because it shows his generous and self-sacrificing nature. Morris always opens the store at six am just to sell the polish woman a three-cent roll. Although Morris has economic need, he does not wake so early to help the polish woman simply because of it. He does so because he knows that someone needs to serve her, so it might as well be him. Morris's act suggests his moral order in which he compassionately supports the needs and desires of other people to the best of his ability. Morris's generous and kindly disposition can also be seen when he sells the drunk woman food that he knows she will never pay for. Morris's generous behavior in this chapter helps to depict his strong moral fiber and sincere character. In doing so, it helps to frame the plot and establish the themes of the book upon which Morris's character depends.
The idea that Morris suffers and has economic desperation also is established in this chapter and will be expanded upon throughout the book. The Bobers have owned the grocery for twenty-one years, a significant number that suggests the age of true maturing from child to adult, and their economic subservience to the success of the business places them in a difficult, almost imprisoned state. If the grocery does poorly, as it is doing now, the Bobers are stuck with no livelihood and can only pray for a buyer. The idea of the grocery being a prison reappears as a motif throughout the novel. It should also be noted that Malamud's own immigrant parents owned a grocery in which they were also trapped and the grocery setting and its subsequent signification is an on-going theme in his stories.
The Bober's suffering has not only been economic, as the chapter suggests with its reference to the death of their son, Ephraim. His name first is mentioned without context as Morris thinks about Ephraim in the store, which makes Morris's eyes grow wet. Later Helen's thoughts explain who Ephraim is as she remembers her childhood. How Ephraim died is not explained in this section, although it is an obviously poignant remembrance. The memory helps to suggest the pain that the Bobers have suffered and as the novel continues Ephraim will play an increasingly important symbolic role as a lost son while his father develops a new foster father relationship with Frank Alpine.
Helen's walk through the neighborhood after leaving the subway locates the grocery within its Brooklyn neighborhood. The neighborhood has only three Jewish families, but is an immigrant location where all of the characters are referred to their ethnicities. There is Carl the Swedish painter, Schmitz the German grocer, the Polish woman, and Nick Fuso the Italian mechanic. These ethnic references suggest that these people are true immigrants who left Europe to struggle in America for a better life. Everyone in this community lives in varying shades of poverty, which the exception it seems of Julius Karp, who has run a successful liquor business. All future events in the novel should be understood as taking place in this impoverished immigrant community. Nat Pearl's ability to attend Columbia and law school, for example, is truly noteworthy, given the fact that his parents recently arrived off a boat from somewhere in Yiddish speaking Europe.
The speech patterns of the character also highlight their ethnic backgrounds. Morris and Ida Bober along with the other older Jews, the Karps and the Pearls, all speak Yiddish. Malamud shows their language by placing Yiddish words directly in the text such as: "landsleit" (countrymen), "parnusseh" (livelihood), and "gesheft" (business). The use of Anglicized Yiddish terms also demonstrates their native language, such as the Polish woman being a "Poilisheh," the Italian tenant being an "Italyener," and the possible robbers being "holdupnicks." Finally, the way that Ida and Morris speak English uses Yiddish grammar translated, with the verbs and adjectives not in the normal American locations. For example, Ida's statement, "You should long ago sell the store" suggests her Yiddish speech patterns since it is not expressed in the normal American manner, which would be something like, "You should have sold the store long ago." The translated Yiddish style allows Malamud to preserve the mixture of comedy, irony, and tragedy in that language. The ironic language is important since Morris Bober will prove to be an ironic hero whose life is both comedic and tragic. His ironic style can be seen in the final sentence of the chapter, "The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better." The tone of the language will play an important part in character development and since the novel's plot concerns character, this use of language is crucial.