2016-07-14 / Editorial

The corner grocery stores of my youth

C Norman’s Attic of Memories
By Norman Beaupré

Today there are almost no small grocery stores of my childhood days where the local grocer was well-known by his patrons. In the old days, the corner grocer was very well-known by almost everyone in the neighborhood. We had confidence in him and he had confidence in his clients, even granting them credit for weeks and sometimes up to a month if the client was on hard times.

There was the system of the “slip” whereby the grocer kept each slip in his account box. I remember all too well there was a lady named Lilly Blanchette who lived on the corner of Simard and Gove streets. She lived alone with her daughter and was either a widow or separated from her husband. People whispered about it from time to time. We were jealous of her daughter, I believe her name was Lucille Girard, who was granted permission from her mother to buy what she wanted from Mr. Parenteau’s store and put it on the slip. Later, the mother would pay for her purchases. We all thought this was quite marvelous.

Rarely did the grocer’s clients ever cheat him for they usually paid their accounts on time. It’s true that some ran away from their debts, but the great majority of the clients always paid what was owed the grocer on time. However, I heard that some had not paid up for weeks on end and even for months, but the grocer did not get after them and even pardoned their debt without any sign of harassment or even vengeance on his part. He was a good Christian as well as a good merchant as far as we Francos were concerned. If I remember well, my mother and my grandmother never had payable accounts at the grocery store. Everything was done through money and cash. At that time, one did not want to be known as crooked, dishonest or someone who did not pay his/her debts. Stealing wasn’t Christian, not Catholic. One of the great Franco-American values was honesty and it still is today.

When I was growing up, I got to know many a grocer, corner grocers as they were known then. The first one was Mr. Parenteau, Hector Parenteau, who lived on Gove Street but had his store on Cleaves. His store was right next to our house and faced my grandmother’s house. He was truly an honest and just man. However, he sometimes showed his bad humor side and got mad with the children who came too often to ask for candy and take forever to select their choice, and they so very often exhausted his patience. Then he would ask his daughter Lucille to wait on the us kids. She had the patience of an angel. I really liked her since she always had a nice disposition with me. My mother liked Mr. Parenteau because she got along well with him and he gave her what she wanted in meats.

There was also Mr. Audie who owned a grocery store on Cleaves Street not too far from Parenteau’s grocery store. I believe his first name was Oscar. He was a man with a smile on his lips, amiable and worthy of his trade as grocer. He got along with everybody in the neighborhood, since it was neighbors who frequented his grocery store just like that of Mr. Parenteau. Down the hill close to Water Street there was yet another grocery store, Mr. Guignard’s. And, if I remember well there were two grocery stores, one owned by Mr. Guignard and the other by Mr. Caouette (please correct me readers if I’m wrong). One store was bigger than the other. Then, I go up another hill, Pike Street, and I come to another grocery store on the corner of Cross and Pike streets, I believe. That one wasn’t far from St. André’s School. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of its proprietor. We sometimes stopped there after school to buy candy. He had a good selection. Not me, because I never had pocket money, only if my grandmother had given me some pennies for her errands, and then if I had not spent them before. Too very often I already had spent my pennies for as my mother used to tell me, money burned a hole in my pockets.

Near St. André’s School on the corner of Bacon and Sullivan streets there was yet another store, but not entirely a grocery store, that belonged to Mr. Wilfrid Fortier. The store carried all kinds of things for school children as well as for grown-ups. It was very handy and not too expensive for his prices were moderate. Kids went in and out of there with what they had purchased. I did not go in too often since I never needed much of anything and besides, I never had pocket money on me to spend on things I did not really need. We had been regimented, myself and my sisters, that our family was without money at its disposition to buy useless things for without having ever been told, we were poor. Not indigent, but poor like so many other families that worked in the mills or shoe shops. Had I been told that I was poor, I would have refused to believe it, for we were not poor as far as my family was concerned and certainly not in the eye of my mother. She had lived all of her life in this poverty that gnaws at the pockets of our workers and keeps them at the level of those without money who aspire for luxury items such as a rent with a large bathroom, running hot water, an electric refrigerator (we did not get one before 1946), and so many things that those who were more favored by certain advantages had.

It must be said that our family was not the only one in this predicament of the inconvenience of money. There were many more who suffered worst than us. At least we were clean, modestly well dressed and I must say proud of the clothes we had that were made by mom. We went to Mass on Sunday well dressed and well groomed, as was expected on Sundays. We all had the pride of belonging to the Franco-American community. Yes, we belonged to something important as far as value is concerned, that is to say, the value of family.

Going back to the corner grocery store, when we moved away from Cleaves Street and away from the city proper, we found ourselves in Hills Beach where there were not too many grocery stores. Truth be told, there was only one really, and another, some kind of a store named Garnache’s that I hardly got to know. The other one was far from where we lived and we rarely went there. I don’t even remember its name. All of our grocery shopping was done downtown which offered us an occasion to get out of the house and away from Hills Beach, especially for my mother, who got very lonely living there. Moreover, we always went to visit my grandmother while we were there. Having returned to the downtown after the Hills Beach venture, my mother found a rent on Clifford Street followed by another one on George Street owned by Mr. Labranche. She then started to go grocery shopping at Beauchesne’s Market on Pool Street. Roland Beauchesne was the man who smiled all the time besides singing from morning until night. He was truly a charming man and everyone loved him. My mother loved him and trusted in his good sense as a merchant. Beauchesne’s store was truly a meeting place where people gathered to shop and share the news of the day. Like all other corner grocery stores, Beauchesne’s Market was a place of good cheer and good food since it was there that ladies planned their meals for the week most of the time. There were certainly other corner grocery stores when I grew up and I cannot name all of them. You readers can certainly remember some of them.

With time the large grocery stores such as A&P and Edwards as well as others, replaced the small corner grocery stores. People got to like the variety of products there and they also had the automobile at their disposal so they were able, more and more, to get around better. However, in the long run, we lost the intimacy between the corner grocer and the lady along with the children who often came to drop in and talk with the many neighbors who came there to buy groceries or in the case of us children some candy. I must admit that the departure of the small corner grocery stores became a real cultural loss for us Franco-Americans as well as for those of other ethnic groups with whom we allied ourselves for so many years. Yes, indeed, the local neighborhood has definitely changed from my days of growing up.

Norman Beaupré is a native of Biddeford. He graduated from St. Francis College and then went on to Brown University where he received his doctorate in French literature. He taught at the University of New England for 30 years. He traveled extensively and took two sabbaticals in Paris. He is the published author of 20 books both in English and in French. His latest work is a collection of tales and stories in French that will be out in July.

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