atwells avenue

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.

Gifts From My Grandfather’s Store

vincent_pantalone

As published in the Providence Journal, December 24, 2013.

“John! Lock the door!”

I had waited 364 days to hear my grandfather say those words. He stood behind the register at Vincent’s, his children’s-wear and baby-clothes store on Federal Hill. It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve — the only day of the year when the store closed early. I dashed to the door and turned the key. The dead bolt hit the doorframe — pop! — and another exhausting selling season for our family had ended.

As a 10-year-old in 1970, I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, but not old enough to be aloof about receiving presents. I had asked for Pro Bowl Live Action Football, which I had seen advertised on TV. The ad touted the game’s “king-sized playing field” and “complete pro-type teams.” I hoped “Santa” would deliver.

As I turned away from the door, a woman swooped in from the Atwells Avenue sidewalk and pressed hard against the door’s glass — a would-be, last-minute Santa. The lock resisted. I hoped my grandfather would, too.

I recalled a story that my mother had told me many times. When she was young, my grandfather had brought her a fancy winter coat from his store. The following day, he took the coat back — a customer needed it. “Don’t worry,” he said to my mom. “I’ll get you another one.” (He did.) At Vincent’s, you always took care of the customer.

So, I wasn’t surprised on that Christmas Eve to see my grandfather unlock the door, to the woman’s great relief. Christmas Eve — at least my idea of what it should be — would have to wait.

*           *           *

Everyone who worked at Vincent’s was a relative or seemed like one. It was years before I realized that Auntie Gerry technically wasn’t my aunt, but by that point it didn’t matter. At Vincent’s, everyone was family.

My grandfather opened the store in 1927. It thrived through the Great Depression and became known statewide as the go-to place for baby clothes, christening sets, and communion suits and dresses. At the corner of Atwells Avenue and Acorn Street, Vincent’s had spectacular wraparound showcase windows — merchandising gold.

Each night, those windows presented a parade of brightly lit mannequins adorned in the latest fashions. During the day, my grandfather’s hand-painted paper signs beckoned to drivers and passersby: Layaway Plan! Winter Coat Sale! Christmas Gifts!

This was my first year of working on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I cut up boxes, picked up pins, retrieved layaways, ran out for coffee, killed time. The days were long, especially when I thought of my friends playing touch football or pick-up basketball.

Some Saturdays, Auntie Gerry would save me from my restlessness: “Let’s have Caserta’s for lunch,” she’d say, handing me a $5 bill. Twenty minutes later, I’d return with a cheese and pepperoni pizza.

I loved Auntie Gerry.

One Saturday, my grandfather gave me a welcome break from my routine. A group of guys was going to be renting the apartment upstairs for a nightly card game. My grandfather gave me two leftover gallons of paint from the store basement. Hands of poker would soon be dealt in rooms freshly coated in soft pink and baby blue.

*           *           *

For a second time, I heard the magic words: “John! Lock the door!”

This time, no last-minute Santa intervened. Outside, my grandfather set the alarm and Vincent’s was officially closed for Christmas!

At my Aunt Rita’s house that night, my mom and aunts sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes, my uncles drank scotch, my grandfather played the violin. Older cousins drank beer in the basement; my little brother and I, the youngest grandchildren, wolfed down Italian cookies in the kitchen. At times, just about everyone was talking at once: the familiar din of Christmas Eve. Then we all crammed into the living room to exchange gifts. At the end of the night, my grandfather handed white envelopes to my mom and aunts. Each of them thanked him with a kiss, and I somehow knew that the amount of cash inside was not insignificant.

On Christmas morning, Pro Bowl Live Action Football was waiting for me under the tree. But the game was not nearly as much fun as the ad had promised. It took forever to set up the teams. And then the plays were over in an instant. After trying it a few times, I never took Pro Bowl Live Action Football out of the box again.

It would be years before the memory of my disappointment about the game brought an epiphany. The best gifts from my childhood — the security provided by a grandfather’s store, the embrace of a big Italian family — didn’t come once a year. They were there every day.

 

Two Hills, One Rhode Island Moment

The Hill and Harbor District is fourteen miles away from Federal Hill by car, and a world away by any other measure. But the two came together for me early one morning this week.

As I was leaving for work, a man walking up Peirce Street waved and asked about my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. I told him Dick had died in February. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I always saw him walking. He was like the mayor around here.” I smiled. Dick’s legend lives on.

“I’ve been here since 1959,” the man said. “There were only 3,000 people in town. Then they all came for the schools.” He laughed. “Been here since ’59, but I’m still considered an outsider.”

A yellow bus churned by. “How long you been here?” the man asked. I thought of my daughter, Juliana, who was born five months after we moved to East Greenwich. “Sixteen years,” I told him. “I’m an outsider, too.” We laughed and I said I was from Providence. The man’s face brightened.

“You Italian?”

“Pantalone,” I said. “On my mother’s side.” I told him my grandfather had a baby clothes store on Federal Hill for more than 70 years. We were no longer strangers.

“Still have to go to Cranston for pastry,” he said with a knowing nod. “Zaccagnini’s.”

Bread, too, I added. It was like talking to an uncle at a family wedding.

“Your wife a good cook?” he asked.

“Outstanding. But I make the gravy on Sundays.”

“With the pork?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“John.”

“That was my father’s name.”

We spoke for a few minutes. About his heart transplant and doctor. About my copywriting career. About Atwells Avenue legends. When I asked his name, I didn’t catch his reply. I wish I had. We had a lot in common: the Hill and the Hill, Dick and pastry and Zaccagnini’s, bread and Sunday gravy. And now, this morning on Peirce Street.

I’ll find out his name the next time we meet. I bet the conversation continues.

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