Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The End Of Charlie's

Last time, I said that disaster was about to strike the little neighborhood stores, including Charlie’s. Before I tell you what that disaster was, I need to explain a bit more about our Lower Mills neighborhood during the 1960’s.

There were three places for the moms in the neighborhood to do their shopping at, aside from the mom and pop stores. The Purity Supreme was in Mattapan Square. That was beyond walking distance. If you wanted to shop there, you had to take the trolley, then carry your sacks of groceries home on it, as well as make the two or three block walk to and from the trolley stop at both Central Avenue and Mattapan. That put it out of consideration for most. The Stop & Shop was located on Morton Street, near the end of Galivan Boulevard. It was a good 10-minute walk from our house on Caddy Road, so the only time a mom went there was when an amazing bargain made the trip worthwhile. Most often, when serious shopping needed to be done, the First National was the place to go. It was about a five-minute walk from home, next to St. Gregory’s Catholic Church, in what was referred to as ‘The Village’.

Now, I hope you noticed that I said ‘walk’, not ‘drive’. This is because the moms rarely had access to a car with which to do their shopping. In those days, if a family had a car, that’s what they had: ONE car. Half the families didn’t have a car at all. As a result, most expeditions to the supermarket entailed returning home carrying your groceries by hand or by pulling them along in a wagon or cart. Walking even five minutes with your arms weighted down by four or five sacks of goods was no picnic. Neither was dragging a cart along bumpy sidewalks and streets, with the likelihood of something fragile and/or breakable being jostled out of your cart.

As a result, the smaller stores, closer in proximity and not unreasonably priced, did enough business to be profitable. If they offered friendlier service than you got at a supermarket, that was a plus. You could pay your utilities bills at McDonald’s. Charlie would grind your hamburger to specifications. And if you wanted something quickly, such as cigarettes or a quart of milk, you certainly didn’t want to walk fifteen minutes – or even five – to someplace where you’d have to wait in line for five more minutes to pay, and then have another longish walk back home.

One more very important thing: For many years, Bakers Chocolate had their headquarters along the Neponset River in Lower Mills. They were a national company, using a railroad spur to receive shipments of cocoa beans, and then shipping out chocolate products via that same railroad line. They decided to close the factory, moving their headquarters to the Midwest. This did two things of import concerning the neighborhood. First, it put a bunch of people out of work, giving them less discretionary income and puting them in a position where they had to find bargains. Second, it put a large parcel of land bordering River Street, home to a now useless railroad roundhouse, on the market cheap.

The Jewel Companies put two and two together and came up with a million dollar idea that spelled disaster for the mom and pop stores. They looked at the geography of the neighborhood; where the other supermarkets were; and the fact that this magnificently located parcel of land could now be had for peanuts. Then they bought the land and built a small shopping center on River Street. In addition to their own Star Market as the flagship tenant, they built an Osco's pharmacy. Gilchrist’s opened a department store in the complex, Brigham's opened an ice cream parlor, and a small bank moved in as well.

Now, not only could the moms of the neighborhood get their large grocery shopping done somewhere nearby, they could also get prescriptions filled, buy inexpensive clothes and toys, have a decent ice cream sundae, and cash checks. This spelled doom for the little neighborhood grocery stores, and it also croaked a whole bunch of other neighborhood stalwarts.

The first place to go out of business was Sam’s. He was almost directly across the street. The Star could sell meats more cheaply than he could and it was no further away for most folks. He stood no chance. Sam’s became a real estate office.

Next to go was Shirley’s. Hers was a barely-going concern to begin with, and The Star was only a half-block away. Her place was rebuilt into a residential dwelling.

A fruit-and-produce store, Orlando’s - where everybody bought Christmas trees every year, as well as vegetables - was next to fold. They couldn’t compete with Star’s prices. Star didn’t sell Christmas trees, but that business wasn’t enough to float Orlando’s through the other 11 months. They sold their building and it became a law office.

There were three neighborhood pharmacies when Osco’s opened. One folded immediately. When that happened, the other two were able to scrape by due to a loyal clientele. Getting folks to transfer their trust along with their prescriptions wasn’t as easy as getting them to buy their milk and eggs someplace new. However, they barely survived.

An ice cream store, Hendrie’s in Milton, closed. It was actually part of an ice cream factory, which still operated. However, even as part of a factory, they couldn’t compete with Brigham’s location in the shopping center.

(The main thing Gilchrist’s opening did was to keep business from going to the Mattapan Square stores of W. T. Grant’s and Woolworth’s, the two largest businesses in that commercial area. As a result, Mattapan Square businesses in general had less traffic, and stores that relied a bit more on impulse buying – restaurants, bars, movie houses – died a slow death, leaving that area depressed for years.)

McDonald’s was the next-to-last small store in Lower Mills to close. He held out for a couple of years, doing a business in comic books, cigars, men's magazines, and other items that The Star and their brethren either didn't care about or thought unprofitable. However, he finally called it a day, too. His land was used to open a sub shop called Spukie’s and (irony) a chain convenience store, L’il Peach, a few years down the road.

The only neighborhood store that survived more than a couple of years was Charlie’s. The only reason it survived was because Charlie Capabianco had given his life to his store. In return, the store gave him life. It was his life. There was nothing else he could do but keep the store open, even if it wasn’t making him any money.

And it wasn’t.

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The first thing Charlie had to do, in order to survive, was lay off his teenage helper, Pete. He just plain couldn’t afford to have someone else on the payroll. He then started opening an hour earlier in the morning and sometimes staying open later at night. He concentrated his stock in things that people always wanted quickly – cigarettes, milk, cream - and things that the supermarket didn’t carry, or sold only in quantity, such as penny candies, small snack cakes, tonics, and iced treats like Fudgsicles, sold one at a time rather than in 12-packs.

We were too young to know all of the finances of these things at the time. I only realize in retrospect what he did to survive, and how much he was hurt by the Star. We had no idea how much cashflow he had lost. He still got a bit of adult business, but not much. However, he never lost the kid’s business.

He never lost the kid’s business because he was the guy who had given us treats on Halloween; who had trusted us enough to let us pick and choose our own penny candies; who stocked great treats - root beer and banana Popsicles - starting every year when school let out; who had let us feel like big deals when we got to eat a little bit of leftover hamburger from his grinder; who had taken every bottle we brought to him for a 2 cent or 5 cent return fee, even if he had never sold that brand of soda before and the bottle was caked with filth from where we found it along the banks of the river; and who had let our families put things ‘on the tab’ when we were broke.

As we became teenagers, his adult customers were few and far between. Only the most local of the locals, those who lived right around the store, came in to buy anything. Older retired gentlemen with no place else to go hung inside while we hung out in front, pitching pennies at his front wall.

When we reached 15 and 16, he let us sit inside and read the paper when we had nowhere else to go. His place became a hangout for the unemployed, the never employed, and the barely employed. While we tried to act like adults – smoking cigarettes behind our parent’s backs, and using ‘fuck’ every third word in sentences – Charlie sat at his counter, drinking his Old Granddad and barely breaking even.

And when we reached 18, 19 and 20, semi-hoods occasionally selling drugs, trading sports bets, playing quarter-half poker and desperately trying to come up with schemes to keep from working legitimate jobs, we hung out at Charlie’s all day, sitting around the store like we owned it, paying our clubhouse dues by purchasing the occasional pack of smokes, or maybe a bag of chips and a Coke. And, when he wasn’t arguing sports with us, Charlie dozed at the counter, one hand wrapped around his empty whiskey glass.

We tried to do right by him. Those of us who had cars would give Charlie a ride when he needed one, usually taking him home to his apartment on River Street when he closed up. If he wanted a new bottle, we’d make the run to the liquor store. There weren’t too many deliveries, but when one came, we unloaded the boxes and stocked the shelves, or took the overstock to the cellar. More than once, one of us removed a burning cigarette from his fingers after he fell asleep at the counter. If an actual customer came in – which was a rarer occurrence than ever – we rang up the sale for him and let him sleep.

Then we were all in our early 20’s. Well, even when we were little kids, Charlie had seemed old to us. Now, he actually was. And we knew – every one of us KNEW – that when he finally decided to call it a day, and close the store for good, he wouldn’t be with us much longer.

And that’s exactly what happened. Charlie’s, the store, closed. Less than a month later, Charlie Capabianco, the man, died. That was a bit more than 25 years ago now.

There’s a whole bunch of guys originally from that neighborhood, like me, who hold a very dear place in their hearts for that little Italian guy we literally grew up with; who might have been the first adult to treat some of us like adults; who gave us a place to hang, keeping us more-or-less off the streets and out of more serious trouble; who extended us credit when we were hurting; and who – God bless him – trusted us with the penny candy. Like I said earlier, 19 times out of 20 we repaid that trust with honesty.

I wish to hell it had been 20 out of 20.

14 comments:

Janet said...

What a sad story, but such a touching tribute for a good man. By a good man. You made me cry today, and that's a good thing.

I didn't move to our town until after the Walmart came in and shut down most of the local businesses, but you can still see the empty storefronts downtown. There's just no one interested or able to move into them.

Uncle Jim said...

We all had a "Charlies" once. What a very sad commentary for your former neighborhood and our entire country. Some say all the Charlies have been Wallmarted. I say they have been Republicaned. Our own citizend have turned their backs on Mom & Pop's seeking cheap goods from countries having cheap labor, cheaper standards and sadly cheaper lives for their citizens. We are in the waiting line for 3rd world status and the line is moving quickly along.

lime said...

what a tribute indeed. i could tell a similar story about my uncle lloyd who ran a neighborhood grocery. thanks for being good to charlie. my uncle wasn't quite so lucky in his final years of running the store.

Buck said...

Excellent, Jim... and thank you. My childhood was radically different, what with being an Air Force brat and drug around the world at an early age. Yet I could see elements of my boyhood in your post, and elements of Charlie in the good people I've known through the years.

You hit a VERY resonant chord here, My Friend.

CrazyCath said...

Suldog (Jim?) -
That is one of the best tellings I have read of a childhood. You tell it well. You set the scene. This is so important for some one like me who has never been to America so I am not familiar with the store names or what their function is just on a name. You explaining it as you weave the tale is so helpful and let me into your world as if I lived it.

It is a very sad tale, but unfortunately one told the world over. Big business swallows up the little guys, and no one notices until it is too late.

On a personal note, I think that Charlie knew it was 19 times out 20, and he would have wondered what was up with these boys if it had been 20 out 20!

That was one good soul. And so are you for telling his story. Thanks.

Mushy said...

Sad...so very sad Sul, but a good story as usual.

Now, I'm reflective of places I've seen drop to Wal-Mart and the like in our area. Sad...so sad.

Rich said...

None of this will keep me from getting my pizza at The Pleasant, though :-)

I caught your comment on UH.

That used to be one of my favorite places to drink and eat pizza way back. Did you grow up in Rozie?

Rich said...

ooops just read your post about Charlie and learned you grew up in Lower Mills Dot.

This is a great story by the way.

Melinda said...

It's so sad when people with small businesses are pushed out of business because of chain companies and restaurants. Those mom-and-pop places are the last remaining stores where you can find real customer service. They really do care about each customer...
When I was living in England, I gravitated towards the local pubs and shops - and was always rewarded by excellent service and a great product. It's sad to say that those great "locals" are much harder to find here in Canada.

Peter N said...

Sul, I did not read your post (yet), but I wanted to thank you for your comment on my blog about that spoiled bunch of guys who make up MY TEAM. Thanks, but there still is a sour taste in my mouth. Not soon to leave, either.
Thanks again----Pete

Chris Stone said...

great post... thanks for the telling. I totally agree with crazycath.... Charlie knew.

Shrinky said...

Ah Suldog, what a lovely tribute to someone who obviously held a special place in many hearts.

I'm of the same generation, our store was ran by two spinster ladies who must have been pushing eighty around the time I was about ten.

Thanks for bringing back some warm memories!

Cleary Squared said...

My aunt Mary ("Mae") lived on Cedar Street for many years until she moved to her new house in Milton back in 1990 or so.

I don't remember the stores you talked about, but the Star Market, the Brigham's, and the Westinghouse Bank was certainly there until at least 2004. Then it became a Shaw's and the entire works was moved to the corner of Washington St and River St, right where my grandfather used to work as a foreman at Berger Instruments.

Cleary Squared said...

Correction: the Westinghouse bank moved out in the early 90's, and the Brigham's closed in the mid-90's.