Monday, July 13, 2015

Main Street Merchants

If you start down Main Street, next to where Apple Blossoms is now located you will notice a narrow little candy store. Years ago, that narrow store was the location of Quinn’s barbershop, one of -- I just counted, and I can think of, eight barbershops. I am sure there were more than that, given most men used to get a hair cut every two weeks. The cost was 25-cents. No one tipped in those days. Some men also used to also get a shave every day, costing 15-cents. Incidentally, there was nothing more luxurious than a barbershop shave. I once got a shave at the railroad station in Chicago when I was in the Army, and I was waiting for a train to New York City. The barber would first put hot towels on your face to soften your whiskers, then give you a real close shave with a straight razor. You felt like a million bucks after that treatment.

Burkill’s Drug Store was where Susan’s Hair Salon is now. Norm Burkill -- a chubby, jovial man -- was the proprietor and pharmacist. He was assisted by another pharmacist, Frank Reavey. Frank had never been to college. You could at that time serve an apprenticeship in pharmacy, take an exam, and if you passed the test, you became a registered pharmacist. Burkill’s also had a very active soda and ice cream counter, serving sandwiches and light lunches. (Melanie, Norm Burkill was the husband of your teacher, Gertrude Burkill.)

Chef Sau, Spencer’s Chinese eatery, now occupies the location of Dufault the haberdasher’s store. I am told Dufault’s carried the best in men’s clothing. I remember Mr. Dufault as a very dapper man who dressed beautifully. My father used to tell me that Dufault would go to New York City to buy his personal suits. When a prospective customer would come into the store and comment on the nice suit Mr. Dufault was wearing, he would always say he had just taken off the rack in his store. He retired and sold the store in the 1940s to one of his salesmen, a Mr. Gregorie, who ran it for quite a few years, still carrying quality men’s clothing.

The Spencer Fashion Shop was the other major women’s clothing store in Spencer, hence Grandma’s and Grandpa’s competition. They were located where Mike’s Pizza Shop is today. Ella and Sam Hyman ran the store, also carrying a quality line of dresses, sportswear, and accessories. Every Monday, Ella would drive to Boston and return with a fresh supply of fashions from the garment wholesalers at 75 Kneeland St.

Next to Mike’s Pizza, where Charley Martinez has his appliance repair shop, was Giard’s Stationary Store. Edmund Giard and his wife sold stationary, office supplies, candy, etc. The store was sort of a mixture of many fast-selling items. The Giards had twin sons, Ronald and Donald, who were high school classmates of mine. At that time they attended a private Catholic school in Canada, with the financial help of an uncle who was a priest in Ware. Donald Giard died in Hartford, CT, a few years ago. Ronald is a retired head social worker for Catholic Charities, and lives in Leicester.

The First National Store was one of Spencer’s two chain grocery stores. (Recall that there was no such thing as a supermarket.) Located where the Spencer Travel Agency is now, the First National was managed by Napoleon O’Coin. The store shared equal billing with the A&P next door as Spencer’s largest and busiest grocery store.

Where Whitco is today, the Main Street A & P store was one of two in Spencer, with a smaller branch store on Mechanic Street. Though I don’t remember it, I am told there was once also a branch on Chestnut Street. A very charismatic gentleman from Worcester, Fred Hattinger, managed the A& P. George Bernard, a VFW buddy of my Dad’s (and Vickie Hopkin’s grandfather), was the butcher. One of my early memories of the A & P was purchasing a large dill pickle out of the wooden barrel next to the vegetable counter, for 4-cents.

The next block going down the street housed Jack Rosenthal’s Puritan Restaurant. The Puritan was where the two stores are that Whitco now uses for storage. Civin’s Specialty Shop also was located in one of those stores, before ceasing business in 1960. Back in the 1930s the Puritan occupied the entire first floor of 138 Main Street. It was where the action was; on a weekend night there usually were three men serving customers at the long bar, and as many waitresses waiting on the trade in the numerous booths. When people ate out in those days they dined at the Puritan, Jack’s Lunch, or the Kenwood Diner, but the Puritan was the biggest and busiest of the restaurants.

A narrow little store was hitched to the end of the building where the Puritan was located. The narrow store housed the one-stool shoeshine parlor, run by a man named Dumas. I don’t remember his first name, but I was told he had been a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his younger days. People also called him crazy because he purchased all that land where the Big Y shopping center is in the west end of town. People used to say that nothing could succeed that far out of the center of town. Who in the world would go shopping way down there?

The Crowley Block, on the corner across from Pleasant Street, had two stores on the first floor. The store on the east side of the building housed the Collette Drug Store, one of three pharmacies in Spencer, the other two being Burkill’s (that I just detailed) and The Carpenter Drug store that I will get to shortly. Most of all, I remember the marble soda fountain in Collette’s. The soda fountain was run by a man named Hector Plante, assisted by a teenager named Albert Laroche. Hector and Albert were probably two of the most enthusiastic Boston Braves fans around. When they would get a vacation they would follow the Braves on the train, attending some of their out-of-town games. When the owner (Mr. Collette) died, Hector Plante purchased the store, turning it into a store selling patent medicines, ice cream, soda, and light lunches.

Sharing the building in the other store was White’s 5 & 10, run by Morty White and his brother, Jack. Morty reported to his father, who owned four other 5 & 10's in Worcester. He ran the store until the beginning of World War II, when he left to go in the Army, leaving his brother in charge. When he came back to Spencer after the war, Morty moved the store across the street, bought it from his father, and changed the name to Morton’s Department Store.

Down the driveway of the Crowley block was a little factory formulating cough syrup. Faveau and Mathew’s Cough Syrup was sold on patent medicine counters throughout New England. There also was a bakery selling delicious pastries and bread, both wholesale and retail. Lamoureaux Furniture used the second and third floors of that building to warehouse their extensive inventory of furniture.

Let us cross the driveway to the building that’s now home of the Uptown Beauty Salon and Cormier Jewelers. Hitched to the end of the building on the driveway side was a diner run by Jack Mulcahy, called Jack’s Lunch. Jack’s had an about a 12-stool counter, with a few tables against the wall. The cooking was done in the basement, and the meals would be sent from the kitchen to the upstairs on a dumbwaiter, a little elevator-type contraption behind the counter.

Next door was Webster’s Package Store, one of Spencer’s two liquor stores. The other liquor store was Berthauime’s Package Store, across from Muzzey Meadow on Maple Street. Berthauime’s was run by brothers Henry and Fat Berthaiume. Fat was probably the most obese man to ever live in this town. He weighed, I was told, over 500 lbs. Among other things, Fat had a special double seat in the Park Theater. One of my favorite stories of Fat Berthaiume has to do with the Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling heavyweight championship fight of 1937. Fat loved boxing and traveled by train to Chicago to see the bout, which was no short journey back in those days. He arrived in the stadium just as the two pugilists were shaking hands. Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first 30 seconds of the first round. Fat stood up, immediately went back to the railroad station, and returned to Worcester. With all that weight, Fat still lived well into his 80s.
Fleming’s Jewelers was where Cormier’s is at present. Franklin Fleming was a rotund, dapper man that I guess you could say looked like a jeweler. Many watch repairmen back in those days were physically handicapped, because they could do their work while seated. Fleming’s used to have a watch repair man by the name of Putnam who was very badly crippled with either polio -- a disease that claimed a lot of victims in those days -- or with birth defects.
Next to Fleming’s Jewelers, rounding out the business tenants in the building, was a branch of a new hardware company with a home base in Fitchburg. Spencer’s Aubuchon Hardware was managed by Norman Belanger. After World War II, Mr. Belanger left Aubuchon and started his own hardware store. He also became quite successful in a real estate business he operated with his wife, Yvette. Norman Belanger died in
Marty Civin 63
the 1970s, and his widow married Dr. Henry Lareau, one of Spencer’s medical doctors. They moved to Florida, where they resided for a number of years. Yvette Belanger Lareau passed away a few years ago.
A fruit store and meat market occupied the block on the other side of Wall Street, where Dick Adams now has his paper goods store. The Crimmins brothers, Mark and Tim, owned the fruit store on the corner. Crimmins also was also the home of a weekly poker game in the back room. In addition to the Crimmins brothers, some of the participants were men that I have mentioned in other parts of this story; Dutchy Meloche, Sam Kanen the tailor, Sam Hyman of the Spencer Fashion Shop, Fat Berthuime, and many more of the illustrious male population of Spencer. The other store in the block was a meat market run by a gentleman named Mike Kelly. Mike’s two daughters were Rita Kelly, a long-time biology teacher at David Prouty High School, and Miriam Mc Court, a long-time teacher and former Spencer selectman.
Do you remember Ray Rich of the Spencer Sea Food Restaurant? Ray Rich had just come to Spencer and with a partner by the name of Mr. Laporte, and opened Spencer’s first fish store. The Atlantic Fish Store was located where the Karate studio is now. The store sold fresh fish daily and, only on Fridays, fish and chips to take out.
Next door to the fish store, where the Christie and Thompson auto parts store now conducts business, was Meloche’s Garage. It was run by Freddie and George Meloche, and owned by Dr. Meloche the veterinarian. Freddie and George were brothers of Chief Dutchy Meloche, and sons of Dr. Meloche. In addition to repairing cars, the brothers also sold Gulf gasoline from two pumps in front of their garage. In the early 1940s, George Meloche became despondent and committed suicide. (He was the husband of Grandma’s friend, Evelyn Morin Meloche.) After World War II Freddie Meloche opened an auto dealership in the garage, selling Kaiser and Frasier cars. (Keith, Freddie was the grandfather of your first love, Christine Letendre.)
On the east corner of Elm and Main streets was Hodgerney’s Garage. On the main floor people rented space to garage their autos, and in the basement of the building that you entered from Elm Street was Spencer’s largest auto repair shop, employing about half a dozen mechanics. Hodgerney’s sold Sacony Gas from two pumps in front of their garage. Sacony Gas was the predecessor of Mobil Gas. One snowy night, Proprietor Everett Hodgerney was filling a customer’s car with gas when another car heading west on Main Street skidded across the road, hitting him. Mr. Hodgerney had to have a leg amputated due to the accident, but he still conducted his business for many more years walking on an artificial leg.

Let’s cross Main Street and head east. Before I undertook the writing of this story, I had forgotten how vibrant downtown used to be. I have turned up so many pleasant memories, and yes, so many ghosts of people long gone, but I am happy to have known.

The Kenwood Diner was where it is now, but it was a different diner. The old diner was much smaller and moved to Rochdale during the later part of the 1930s, replaced by the present diner. The Kenwood was a very busy place, open to the wee hours of the morning. Many truck drivers on the way to Albany used to stop there when they went through at night. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, I have been told that truck drivers would eat at the diner, and then go into their trucks to catch a little sleep. Before leaving the eatery the driver would tell the diner counterman what time he wanted to be woken up. A teenager would then walk down the street and wake the driver at the appointed time. Now that is service.

The Massasoit Hotel not only gave downtown Spencer a unique character, but it was where the town’s social life transpired. The Quinn family owned the hotel, and John Clarke presided over the bar. The Depression brought John Clarke to Spencer. I don’t know where he came from originally, but here is the story I was told many years ago. Mrs. Quinn (who was the mother of the late Senator Phil Quinn, and owner of the hotel) was working in the kitchen, when a young black hobo appeared at the back door and asked for something to eat. Mrs. Quinn offered to exchange a meal for some chores she needed done. John Clarke never left the Massasoit. The hotel became his home for the rest of his life. He was a husky, jolly man who presided over the hotel bar with help of Joe Bouley, Al Bouley’s father. John Clarke died suddenly of a heart attack while still in his 40s. He is buried in his adopted town, at the Pine Grove Cemetery.

The Sugden block had four stores as it does today, but the occupants were different. Heading east from Pleasant Street, the first two stores competed with each other -- both Warren’s Store, which was the store on the corner, and the store of W. Harry Vernon, were in the dry goods business. Harry Vernon also made custom window shades and drapes. I don’t know if any of you remember the late Wyman Adams, who sewed Mom’s and my bedroom drapes. Wyman Adams got his start with Harry Vernon, then bought the drapery part of the company.

If you wanted to buy a newspaper in this town -- whether it was a Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette, a Boston Globe, or Boston Post or Record -- it was distributed by the A.M. Latour Company, which was located where Ernie’s Newsroom is today. Mrs. Anna Latour and her sister, Miss Elizabeth McCarthy, had a monopoly on all papers sold in Spencer. Whether you bought your newspaper from a newspaper boy or over the counter anywhere in town, these two old gals got a piece of the action. Both Uncle Bob and I did stints as paperboys for Latour’s.

The US Post Office was in the next store where The Brickyard Restaurant is now located. The Post office did not move to Mechanic Street until many years later.

Heading east on Main Street after the Sugden block were two houses, one that is still there, which in 1939 housed the office and home of Dr. John Fowler. The other house, a tenement, house was torn down about 1940.

Kleven Shoe Co. was the lifeblood of the town, occupying a large wooden building where the Price Chopper shopping center is now located. Before World War II, the majority of people in Spencer worked in Kleven’s as shoemakers on women’s shoes. If they did not work in Kleven’s, they worked in Allen Squire on men’s work shoes. Back in the late 1800s the Kleven building was considered the largest wood frame building in the United States. Part of the character of Spencer of 50 years ago was the smell of leather as you walked along the downtown streets.

Carpenter Drug was in the little building beside Kleven’s, now occupied by the Mid-State Insurance Co. The pharmacist and owner was a nice gentleman by the name of George Perrault. He kept company with Adrienne Kasky; he finally did marry her, after going out with Adrienne for about 40 years. You could get a good-sized cone of Hood’s Ice Cream for a nickel at Carpenter Drug.

Speaking of ice cream, every merchant had his particular brand, a source of pride. A small cone was 5-cents and a large one a dime. A hot fudge sundae, if you could afford it, was 15-cents. Hood was around, then Fro Joy by Sealtest. Louie Piagintini sold Velvet Ice Cream, and there was McCanns Ice Cream, at 30-cents a pint. You could go to the Puritan or either of the diners and purchase a hot dog and drink for twenty cents, or a big slab of apple pie and coffee for a quarter. A baked sausage diner with peas, applesauce, and mashed potato with gravy was sixty-five cents at the Kenwood, with a cup of coffee thrown in.

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