by Robert Gillis
Published in the Boston City Paper July 2006
As a child in Dorchester, my career goal for years was to run a small store, because that’s what Dad did. To help me run my “store,” at home, Dad sometimes brought me discarded “real” store items, such as an Open/Closed sign, a “business hours” sign, or little stickers. One time, he even brought home the big “Cotts Soda” clock because the bulb had burned out. I had my own little toy cash register, and play money.
Dad worked as a clerk for years at the A&M; Market on 95 Hancock Street (Al’s). It was a little grocery store that was chock full of whatever foods and supplies anyone might need. There you could find not just staples like canned goods, milk, bread and such, but cod fish, fresh strawberries, pies, fish cakes, éclairs, ice cream and Italian ice, stationary, penny candy (back when it really cost a penny!), postage stamps and postcards, baseball cards, and school supplies and paint brush sets.
There was a hamburger grinder and meat slicer in the back, and Al offered a good selection of cold cuts and meats. In front of the “deli” area were big bins of green beans and loose potatoes and onions.
The store was so small that if you removed a bottle of soda from the cooler (or “ice box,” as everyone of that generation called it) you needed to put a warm one back in its place. Not an inch of space went to waste.
Most Saturdays, the employees were busily boxing orders of food for phone-in customers. Some of these would be billed on the store tab. The kids would deliver the food to each customer and then hurry back to pick up the next order.
People were always gathered at Als — the old timers stopped in to chat; the neighborhood people — the “regulars” were always there and caught up on news as they put together the order (or as we pronounce it in Dorchester, the “aw-dah.”
There were several other Mom & Pop stores like the A&M; Market in our neighborhood and I remember each store and its owners and employees very fondly. The guys at Hancock Liquor were always friendly to me as I picked up a few cans of Shlitz for Nana. Orlando and his wife were so kind at “Tony’s Market.” I really liked them.
There was Righter’s Hardware on Dudley Street. They sold EVERYTHING. And they were so much friendlier than a Home Depot. Strand Pharmacy — which still exists — may not have the stock found at a CVS, but Frank and Marlena and all the other employees always knew your name.
And on Stoughton Street was Ruggerios, where all the neighborhood kids worked. I believe that is now Alves Market.
Many of these stores still exist, most under new management, but still as small stores catering to their neighborhood. I love that they are still around.
These Mom & Pop stores and smaller businesses have character those cookie-cutter franchises like Christy’s and 7-11 never will. You walk into them, and people are typically more friendly, and the locals are usually passing time, chatting. Als’s was always like that. So was Tony’s. And no matter what you needed, they would get it for you.
(And may I add that NO ONE ever made a better pizza than Cataloni’s on Hancock Street. We were so sad when they stopped making those pies — they are still my favorite.)
There’s always a somewhat “rustic” flavor to these stores. They’re more often than not as brightly lit as the chains we know today, and they always seem a little cluttered and a just a little old-fashioned. Not in a bad way, just in a nostalgic way.
I love these kinds of stores. Sadly, with all the Home Depots and Christy’s and Mega-Franchise chains stealing away customers these days, these local markets are all but becoming extinct. Progress is erasing little bits of our history.
Each of these businesses and dozens like them in town give a little more, try a little harder, and make you feel like you matter. They face fierce competition and Mega-chains. They work very, very hard. And we appreciate it.
In this day of mega-mergers and super chain stores, may these smaller stores continue to flourish — they are our neighborhood stores, they are gathering places, and in some ways, help define our neighborhood character and family.
You can do your part by patronizing these stores, and letting the people who run them know their work is appreciated.
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