I am writing this first part of my story to tell something of what Spencer was like as I grew up in the 1930's and 40's. Most of what I tell you in the beginning is hearsay because, of course, I cannot remember events of the first few years of my life. My brother, Bob, is writing a history of our family going back to 1840's, one I am sure will be better crafted and different than mine. Think of this as my autobiography.
The question has been asked: What brought the Civin family, of the Sea Gate section of Brooklyn, NY, to Spencer, MA, on that Labor Day of 1932? The answer is, times were hard. It was the in middle of the Great Depression. Changes had to be made by my mother and father.
At the time of my birth, my father was a business partner with a man by the name of Mr. Siegel, in a contract dress-manufacturing firm in New York City. The way I understand it, a dress contractor would take the overload of work from larger, and, probably branded manufacturers. It was during the Depression, and I would guess that there were not many overloads of work to be handed out to contracting firms. My Dad’s company fell on hard times, and consequently went bankrupt.
A decision had to be made: My father would stay in New York and look for a job in his trade as a dress cutter, and my mother would take Bob and me, as well as, her friend and boarder, Gertrude Farrington -- to her mother’s house in Warren, MA. I don’t imagine we all were welcomed with open arms. I am sure my Grandmother Israel was not a particularly gracious person. Shortly after arriving in Warren, mother opened “The White Swan Tea Room” in West Brookfield. The building still stands at the site of the tearoom and is occupied by Bousquet Auto Parts.
My mother ran the Tearoom, and my uncles, Max and Nathan, sold “Sinclair Gas” from a pump in front. The money for my mother’s venture, I was told, came from $400 she had saved from table money from our home in Sea Gate. From what my mother used to tell, I guess the food was pretty good at “The White Swan Tea Room”. The only problem was there were no customers to try the food. My mother did have competition down the street from a restaurant known as “George and Ethel’s.” I am told they did all right because they sold bootleg hooch. Of course, there was no way Ethel Civin was going to sell booze. Mother closed the little restaurant, and Gertrude, who had been acting as our nanny, returned to New York.
With the closing of the tearoom in West Brookfield, there was much despair. What was to be done? We had to eat, and I am sure my mother wanted to get out of the situation she was in, with all of us living with my grandmother. So, Mother and Uncle Nathan decided to open a small clothing store. Nathan had recently graduated from Northeastern University in Worcester. He had a degree in Business Administration, but he had no job.
On Labor Day, 1932, the Civin family arrived in Spencer, and Civin’s Specialty Shop was born. It would be a name in women and children’s clothing in Spencer for the next 30 years. My father had now joined his family in Spencer, but for the first couple of months he was not part of my mother’s and Nathan’s firm. He was looking for locations to open a grocery store in Worcester. Nothing became of Dad’s grocery store plan and thus he joined the business in January, 1933.
You might ask, why Spencer for a location? Both Kleven's Shoe and Allen Squire Shoe Co. were working most of the time and my Uncle Nathan thought Spencer looked like a busy town. He used to come through Spencer on the trolley on his way from Warren to Northeastern. Also, for a very short time, Uncle Max and Nathan ran a small gym on Chestnut Street in the 1920's. I was told it was where the Savageau brothers and a boxer by the name of George Ledoux first put on the gloves. Uncle Max also flirted with boxing, but never entered the ring.
The first location of Civin’s Specialty Shop was at 48 Mechanic St. My brother Bob tells me, it was pretty much a dump. The store was heated by a pot-bellied stove which also used to warm my mother’s and my lunch. I will tell you more about that part of Mechanic Street and some of the people shortly. (Remember, I was only 1-1/2 years old, so everything I am telling you about our arrival in Spencer came from stories my parents told me, or from Bob, who was 7 at the time).
The total investment for the business was probably about $100 for some used fixtures and a month’s rent. To obtain merchandise, Nathan and my mother bought on their father’s credit line. Grandpa and Grandma Israel were divorced. Grandpa Israel lived in Brookfield, and peddled clothing out of a panel truck to area mill towns and farmers.