Tale of two Federal Hill stores

mom+rob@norma&sons_late70s_

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2016.

The click of Mom’s blinker came one exit early. Instead of taking the usual way home to our Elmhurst neighborhood in Providence, she steered her blue Ford Maverick off Route 10.

My younger brother, in the back seat, noted the detour. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“I want to drive down the avenue,” my mother said. It was Sunday evening, with almost no light left in the sky. The three of us were returning from the beach.

By “the avenue,” she meant Atwells Avenue, a street so central to our lives in the mid-1970s that we referred to it with verbal shorthand. Likewise, “the Hill” meant Federal Hill, and “the store” was Vincent’s, my grandfather’s baby clothes and children’s wear store, which stood at the corner of Atwells and Acorn.

Papa’s store had thrived for nearly half a century. Even when boarded-up buildings began appearing on Federal Hill in the 1960s, and despite the opening of two malls in Warwick, Vincent’s remained Rhode Islanders’ go-to place for communion suits and dresses, as well as christening sets.

My mother worked in the store six days a week. My younger brother and I served as stock boys on Friday nights and all day Saturday. My older brother, since enrolled in college, had done the same before us — as had perhaps a dozen cousins before him.

Mom first worked full-time at Vincent’s upon graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. She replaced her oldest sister, Grace, who was starting a family. My mother stopped working when she got married, only to return to the store in 1969 after she and my father separated. Vincent’s provided the financial security that made it possible for her to leave her marriage — a rarity for women at the time.

Still, it was duty, then necessity — never choice — that had placed her behind the glass-fronted oak showcases ringing the store. It was clear she didn’t enjoy waiting on customers the way my aunts and godmother did. And Mom and Papa didn’t always see eye to eye.

But waiting on people, the old-fashioned way, was a must at Vincent’s. Much of the merchandise was inaccessible to customers — behind glass, in back of counters, or folded away in drawers. To get a bonnet or sundress for your child to try on, you needed a salesperson.

Once, when my grandfather was having supper at our house, my mother broached the issue.

“People buy differently now,” she said. “Young moms want to wait on themselves.”

“Those showcases have worked for 50 years,” my grandfather said.

“I’m thinking self-serve racks could do some of the merchandising for us,” my mother said, putting her fork down and looking at him across the table.

“Customers come to our store to be waited on,” he replied, not looking up. “Why change?”

But change was afoot on the Hill. Soon, thanks to federal and local revitalization projects, the sidewalks were widened and paved with handsome square bricks. A stately fountain graced DePasquale Square. And a sculpture of a “pigna” or pine cone, a traditional Italian symbol of welcome, hung from the massive arch that served as the neighborhood’s eastern gateway.

Life changed for my mother too. She and nine fellow merchants — mostly men — formed a company to purchase a building on the avenue. They had a vision: as Federal Hill gentrified, they would invest in properties and renovate them.

My mother’s Maverick crept along Atwells Avenue until she pulled up to a four-story building with a “sold” sign on it.

“This is where I’m going to have my store,” she said, pointing at the first-floor retail space.

My brother and I were speechless. The thought of my mother leaving Vincent’s was outlandish to me — and exhilarating.

Three months later, Mom opened a teen and junior fashion boutique. As women browsed the sparkling chrome racks, a large blue sign proclaimed the store’s name: Norma & Sons. The crisp white letters stood out like stars on an American flag.

It was my mother’s declaration of independence.

Her store would change our lives — but that is a story for another day.

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