Yet Another Journal

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» Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Shopping for Memories
Reading Dave Aldrich’s blog (check blogroll) about old retail stores always makes me think about “going downtown” with Mom. We’d do it at least once during Christmas, winter, and Easter vacation, and at least twice during the summer, and it was always something to look forward to, despite declining fortunes (as a cynical teenager I used to refer to taking “the bus UP Cranston Street to watch the neighborhood run DOWN”). In the early sixties there was a chirpy radio jingle about Providence being “Southern New England’s largest shopping center”; by the late seventies “downcity” looked like a once proud dowager gone to seed.

These excursions always started the same way; we’d be up to have breakfast with Dad, who rose at six and left the house by twenty past, after gulping a homemade eggnog and hot coffee. I drag myself out of bed at six these days, but on those downtown days was dressed, washed, and into the kitchen in a flash. I had an eggnog, too, for breakfast (it was the only way I would eat eggs willingly) on other mornings, but not on these. We would hustle to get dressed, make the bed (heaven forbid we left the house without making the bed!), and walked the three blocks past Berkeley, Doane, and Clarendon Streets, crossed the WPA-era concrete railroad bridge past the junkyard, walked past Harold Crook’s garage, the Hideaway Inn, and Cleary’s Dry Goods to wait for the bus on Cranston Street. On winter mornings the bus was invariably late and you’d stand there stamping your feet and sticking gloved hands deep in the pockets of your winter coat, the wind always finding a way down your coat collar despite a scarf. Later we had a bus stop across the street, and if we didn’t hustle we had to make the walk. This is how I learned to make a bed, complete with tucked sheets and rolled pillows, with no wrinkles under the spread, in 2 minutes and 14 seconds!

The bus chugged its way into Providence with many starts and stops, past the looming dirty brick walls of the old trolley barn on one side and the Narragansett Brewery on the other (trolley barns seem to have proliferated in Cranston; the Taco company was also located in an old trolley barn and my dad remembered another on Webster Avenue), through the old neighborhood of peeling triple-deckers and taps with their round brick windows and the only A&P nearby, past the castellenated, fantasy-inspiring structure of the Cranston Armory, and finally taking a sharp left at the Saints Peter and Paul Auditorium (I still recall a heart-stopping hard left there when they were building the auditorium, riding on a school bus going to the annual Rhode Island Philharmonic concert for the schoolchildren, where we were all certain we were going to be tossed into the maw of the building excavation), before trundling into downtown and getting off at Weybosset Street.

We hadn’t eaten breakfast because we were going to confession at St. Francis Chapel, then in an old brick building owned by Johnson & Wales business school. I preferred confession at St. Francis because they still let you do it the old way, where you said “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” rather than the new way we had learned in Catechism class where the priests asked you questions. We didn’t usually stay for the 7 a.m. Mass, but it was comfortable when we did, only a half-hour service in the small chapel downstairs, the air pleasant with the scents of incense and candles (in the winter wet wool coats and mothballs tended to be added to the mixture), older people who attended Mass daily around you, murmuring silently to themselves as they fingered beads while saying their Rosary.

Now that the solemn part of the day was over, we were free to have a rare treat: breakfast out. Today when I eat out each weekend it is hard to remember how very special this really was. Dad worked in a factory; later Mom went back to work, also in a factory—there wasn’t much money for dinners out. Big formal dinners where you dressed up in Sunday clothes were confined to holidays: Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Mom’s birthday. Occasionally on a Sunday we might grab a hot dog from a truck at the beach, get a burger at Burger Chef or go to Aunt Carrie’s or Rocky Point for clam cakes, or Gus’s at Oakland Beach for doughboys, but this was chiefly confined to summer. (Later Mom tired of lingering fish scent and she and my dad started getting fish sandwiches at McDonald’s on Friday. I despised fish, especially battered and fried, and would either have “rice and gravy”—white rice with Mom’s tomato sauce on it—or pork fried rice.)

We would have breakfast at the Crown Coffee Shop, in the lobby of the Crown Hotel. The waitresses wore little white caps and starched white aprons, and I had toast with real butter instead of the margarine at home. The seats were revolving stools which Mom would have to make me stop spinning on. We’d be among mostly businessmen having a coffee and some eggs and toast before going to work, and professional women with their alligator purses and high heels, all who would be hunched in woven overcoats, the ladies with fur collars, in the wintertime.

Breakfast was almost too leisurely, since we had to wait for the Outlet Company to open; they were the first store available, at 8:45 on the button, not a minute earlier, to my chagrin. If it wasn’t cold, we would go stand at the brass-and-glass doors with the other early shoppers, and I would press my nose on the glass like a kid in a candy store.

Once in the store I’d make a beeline to the book department while Mom did her shopping. Mom did something that would horrify parents today: she left me alone, first in the toy department, then in the book department, of stores. I was not to move out of that department, nor talk to strangers, nor go anyplace with anyone unless it was a policeman. I didn’t move and didn’t talk, and it suited me just fine. I hated tagging after Mom as she shopped for clothes; I despised shopping for clothes and shoes for myself, even as a teenager, and did it only under duress. Better in the book department at the Outlet, which was on the first floor next to the café, running caressing hands over hardback books we couldn’t afford, or spending three weeks squirreled allowance on a Get Smart book.

We had a regular route worked out. From the Outlet we would go to the Paperback Book store across the street. I can close my eyes and see the store exactly as it was—like Ebenezer Scrooge I could “walk it blindfolded”—dark brown shelves tall enough to be over my reach, posters of everything from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to psychedelic Peter Max rainbows and glowing unicorns on the ceiling, books being sunned in the display window, the clerk in an elevated booth on the left, the mystery books in the far back right corner and the media-based books to the left under the clerk’s nose, the scent of bookprint everywhere. It was there I saw my first fanzine, out for sale with the regular books; it was pretty obvious the clerk was fannish.
We might stop at Read-All, a narrow bookstore/card shop , or later at Strawberries, the record store, on Union Street on the way to Westminster Street, which, during most of my teenage years, was a no-traffic mall area, and here there were riches indeed. Until it closed in 1968, my favorite venue there was J.J. Newberry. The main level had a coffee shop, sundries, and stationery, and there was an upper level with clothes, but I made a beeline for the basement: toyland, children’s books, and hardware. Newberry’s main appeal was the Whitman books, cheap (29 cents in the 1960s) hardbacks with glossy covers that were either classic children’s books like Heidi, Call of the Wild, Little Women, etc. , serial books like Donna Parker, Ginny Gordon, the Timber Trail Riders, Trixie Belden, and more, or media-based tie-ins. All my Lassie books came from Newberry’s. (It was not the eldest of the “dime stores” downtown: a very vague recollection of the downtown Kresges, which closed when I was small, remains: a dim interior, with the old-fashioned wood-and-glass display cases and the shelves upon shelves behind the counters. If you wanted to see something, you asked the salesperson to get it down for you. The “toy department” was a collection of windup tin painted toys and rigid dolls and teddy bears.)

Two other “five and tens” were on Westminster Street, Woolworth and W.T. Grant. Woolworth I can remember as if it were yesterday, as it was the first thing I saw after walking down the stairs of the Alice Building wearing my new glasses at age nine. I looked at the classic red sign and exclaimed to my mother “Mommy, I didn’t know the world was so bright!” (I had been living in a dull, nearsighted haze for some years and didn’t realize it, until my best friend spilled the beans: “Linda can’t read the blackboard at school!”) Woolworth’s was a sensory experience at any time of year—the scent of coffee and tuna sandwiches from the lunch counter at left, the wonderful odor of fresh popcorn, the bright candy in bins right up front, the shrill chirping of the parakeets from the rear of the store, bright seasonal geegaws from sand pails and plastic sunglasses to Easter baskets and stuffed rabbits to Hallowe’en pumpkins and noisemakers—but came into glory at Christmas with tinsel swags, ornament boxes, candy canes and multicolor “Christmas candy,” peppermint scent and sample perfumes, inexpensive toys, tissue-paper honeycomb bells, and Christmas carols playing in the background. Each of the five and tens at Christmas, especially Grant’s, had bins in the seasonal area where you could pick out individual figures for your nativity set: start with a base of the Holy Family, add the ox and the ass, some shepherds, the Three Kings, and then more figures: sheep, others offering gifts, the shepherd boy, the camels, the camel driver, a sheepdog…the possibilities and arrangements were endless.

At Grant’s, another lunch counter—all the stores had them at this time—and cosmetics, cream rinses, hair dye, toiletries, first aid. They had the best price on Crayola crayons, and each year I bought myself a fresh box with the distinctive Crayola odor paired with a Woolworth’s blank calendar pad to make and illustrate my own calendar for the year.

Westminster Street held more boring stores that I was obliged to tag into occasionally (clothing stores, of course)—Gladdings, Peerless, Cherry and Webb, Kennedys when dad needed a shirt—but there was one place I was never reluctant to go: Shepards. The big Shepard’s clock on Westminster Street was a meeting place to many, and Mom went to Shepards when she couldn’t find it anywhere else, a “dressy dress” for a wedding, pretty lingerie, stockings, a new purse, whatnot. Their book department was a nook on the first floor where I could peruse all the Marguerite Henry hardbacks to my heart’s content, wishing we could afford them, while I waited for Mom.

Invariably we would need to make a “pit stop,” and we did that in Shepard’s, for they had, not a tiny rest room perpetually out of toilet paper and dripped with water, but a big ladies’ room that must have been something when the store was built, and was still impressive, especially to a kid from a tiny house in the suburbs. It even had an attendant. The dividing walls were made of glass bricks, and there were long counters with mirrors behind them where you could put your shopping bags down and fix your hair instead of at the sinks where you would get everything wet. People still “dressed up” to go downtown back then and you might even find older ladies adjusting fur stoles and replacing hatpins in big picture hats that you only saw in old magazines, checking their stocking seams.

We might go into Richleys, the little card shop that also sold gift items and small stuffed animals, or Pier Linen, where Mom coveted the cut crystal but never bought any, or Garr’s Fabrics. Garr’s was another place that had not changed in years; the walls were hung with satin drapery and formally dressed women helped you select thread and cut cloth for you. At Christmas I would go to Garr’s to buy ribbons as gifts for my stuffed animals.

One of my too-brief discoveries was a bookstore called Dana’s, which was very close to one of my other favorite stores, E.L. Freeman’s, the stationery shop. I used to wander Freeman’s in a happy daze, imagining all the stories that could be written on their different composition books. Dana’s was a basement shop in the 1920s (or earlier) Wilcox Building with the lovely cornices and façade of that era. Once inside, the store smelled delightfully of old books. These were not simply old paperbacks as you would find in a used bookstore now, but vintage books, many of them dating back to the 19th century. These books were always fascinating, with their small size, colorful leather covers, and inlaid, curving fonts in gold. There was one corner where all of Lucy Fitch Perkins’ “Twins” books were lined up in a row; also glimpsed were bound issues of St. Nicholas and other children’s magazines. Alas, not a year after I discovered it, a fire in the top story of the Wilcox Building ruined Paradise. The books were untouched by fire, but the water and smoke ruined them. Soon after I stood at the iron railing at the sidewalk level, looking down into the bleak, locked, dark bookstore where the books lay smeared across the floor of the shop. I could never walk by there for years afterwards without wanting to cry.

One occasional treat, at least until 1970, would be a movie. There were still four movie theatres downtown during my elementary years, the big Lowes State which got the blockbuster films like Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra, the Strand which showed more controversial flicks like Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the RKO Albee which had things like Jerry Lewis movies, Westerns, comedies, and my favorite of all, the Majestic, which showed all the Disney films. The Majestic was a big white stone building that had started life as a vaudeville theatre; it still had the bathrooms downstairs as in a stage theatre, with a small box office and vending machines replacing most of the once-large lobby, but popcorn and candy was still available at a small stand, and you went through curtained arches to get to velvet-plush seats. A big red curtain opened just as the movie started, giving the old blue Disney “Buena Vista” logo a rippling, purplish cast. I saw Mary Poppins there, and Old Yeller, and Three Lives of Thomasina, and other wonderful Disney classics. Eventually the Loews became the Providence Performing Arts Center, the Strand turned into a “dirty movie” house and then died, the Albee became a parking lot; only the Majestic survives as the Trinity Repertory Theatre playhouse.

The final stop involved going past the Planters Peanut shop. I have forgotten in what small corner of what side street it was in, but all you had to do to find it was take a big sniff, as the roasting peanuts—yes, they did it right in the store!—could be smelled for blocks. Mom always bought peanut clusters for Dad and herself; I preferred my peanuts directly from the shell.

We would wait for the bus on the corner of Washington and Mathewson Streets, where my godfather Armand Azzoli had his shoe shop. We’d go in to say hi, and sometimes to have Armand put taps on the heels of my shoes, since I tended to turn my ankle and wear them down on the sides. It was a tiny, narrow shop, smelling of fresh leather and shoe polish, a cozy place especially on a winter day.

I remember one thing we did was wait for a certain bus. Before they instituted the Arlington #31 bus that went past our house, there were three buses, 31-A, -B, and –C, Oaklawn/Old Spring, one I’ve forgotten, and the Meshanicut bus. We would try to catch the 31-C Meshanicut bus because occasionally, instead of turning down Cranston Street toward Dyer Avenue, it would go straight up Gansett Avenue and we could ask the driver to stop at Appleton Street. I think it had to do with the time of day, but we never figured it out. If it turned the corner, we just got out at the bus stop near DiPrete’s hardware and trudged back the way we came. We were hungry and footsore—but it had been a glorious day nonetheless.

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