A Look Back — The Disappearing Neighborhood Store Blues
Almost every neighborhood in the city has had a small variety store. Many of them have been converted into residences and swallowed up in the streetscapes of the area.
In researching various articles and seeing old photographs, I’ve been reminded regularly of the transitory nature of neighborhood stores.
I recall how prevalent such stores were before shopping centers and supermarkets. It seemed that every neighborhood had at least one variety store where the neighbors would congregate while they picked up a few things.
In ethnic neighborhoods, these stores were a vital link for immigrants. Here, in addition to local and ethnic food products, there were native speakers and native language newspapers. There was a strong community bond that helped the newly arrived cope in a new place. We still see this today in the many small stores that cater to our Hispanic population.
At various times in our history this has been true for all the diverse peoples in Salem. Looking back in history these stores were like little city halls for new groups, whether they were the French, Irish, Polish, Eastern European, Greek, Asian or Hispanic. If someone had a problem or question, help could usually be found here.
Since these stores were centered in the neighborhood, there was limited interaction with the greater community except for market days when various sellers would offer products for all the City’s clientele. I recall in my youth going to the weekly Salem market, where, in addition to the usual vegetables, there was also a strong ethnic blend. Here, in addition to what I’d expect coming from an Irish background, were also such products as kielbasa, linguica, Italian vegetables and pea soup. In those days, ethic foods were not readily available in the meat and grocery stores my family frequented. The market, in addition to selling, was also an opportunity to experience local diversity and try something new.
There are still signs of this hidden neighborhood history in the shapes of some adapted buildings as well as Historical Salem placards such as the one at 100 Derby St. reminding us that this house was at one time Enoch Goodwin’s Grocery in 1854. Many others in their adaption to homes have lost that identity and are now firmly part of new streetscapes. The recent adaptation of Bik’s variety store that, for many years, catered to the Polish population has left only the shape of its former life.
The Salem French-Canadian population that increased dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th century seemed especially adept at running neighborhood stores. I recently saw a listing of some 50 Franco-American run grocery or variety stores that span the years from 1874 to the 1960s. While these stores started in the Point and Castle Hill areas, they soon spread across the city. They were so prevalent that there was even an organization of Franco-American grocers in the City.
Some specialized and eventually grew into larger stores that offered varieties of meat or other products. With the growth of supermarkets, many of these variety stores faded into memory. The ones that survive seem to be in high traffic areas able to draw customers, especially if they sell the lottery.
In this day and age where zoning and codes are strong deterrents, little stores seem to more easily disappear. When that happens, it’s as if they were never there. Inhabiting converted sheds or garages in residential areas, their demise is swallowed up in the prevailing streetscape; nothing marks their passage except for a few faded signs and our recollections.
I can recall driving down Webb street and seeing a variety store, a meat market and barbershop in the not too distant past. Today those stores are residences or garages. You’d never know they were ever there. I remember visiting a book store hidden down a driveway on North Street only to see it gone later without a trace. It was a Twilight Zone moment trying to find the shop that had disappeared.
These little pockets of history echo earlier times and, for many of us, strong childhood memories of deciding what candy or drink to buy. While most of the ethnic stores are gone, their memory and influence remains. We see it today in the underpinnings of Salem’s new found reputation as a diverse restaurant destination.
The beauty of the melting pot is around us and has resulted in our exposure and acceptance of a variety of cultures and foods. Salem, more so than most cities and towns, celebrates this ethnic identity history with a number of events throughout the year. Perhaps that will once again spill into market days with more ethnic diversity, so our youth will once again try something “different” only to find a favorite.
A special thank you to Nelson Dionne and the Club Richelieu for sharing information on the Franco-American heritage in Salem.