Corner Store Culture

By Phineas J. Stone

I have been nowhere but New York City where the corner store is so vital to a neighborhood than in Boston, particularly in the downtown neighborhoods.

But it’s different in Boston than in New York. In New York, even if they know you, the pressure is on to buy something and move on – just like everything else in New York where commerce comes first, chatting a very distant second.

Boston’s corner stores unite the neighborhood in a very different way, perhaps because they fill the gaps for us when we’ve run out of eggs or Pine Sol and can’t stomach a trip to the big store for just a few items. It’s not uncommon for the corner store owners to see us in our pajamas, early on a Saturday while making breakfast and before taking a shower. They also know our kids because many times we just send them to the corner store to get the milk we forgot when we’re in the midst of a pancake panic.

They typically always have it. Years ago, I once needed a disco ball before a holiday party, and with no car and no way to get to a place that sold disco balls, I rushed to the corner store on a whim. Bingo. They had miniature disco balls, about the size of a softball. Yes, they were meant for the dashboard of a car, but four of those minis put me in business for my holiday party. And the owner of that long-forgotten corner enclave even cut me a break, giving me the fourth one for free. That only happens in Boston; I’m sure of it.

Corner stores are also dear to us in Boston unlike other places because they become snowstorm heroes – the only places you can get to for temporarily re-stocking, to purchase candles and matches in desperation, grab some Wonder Bread and, simply, catch up with everyone who has a sore back and is sick of being inside while the piles of snow mount. No other place bustles with activity like a corner store on a snowstorm.

Just doesn’t happen that way in places like Tennessee.

Some corner stores go back years and years and many of them have been in the same hands for long, long periods of time. Many times, the owners have been there for decades.

The South End lost a great corner store earlier this year with the Five Seventy Market – formerly the Bostonian, naturally a Mr. Boston favorite. The Bostonian was special in that owner Allen Seletsky anticipated everything one might need. But also, he was a friendly man who knew what was happening in the neighborhood and treated customers like friends.

When it became the Five Seventy, they literally could get you everything from a freshly cut rose to a roast beef wrap to an organic soda, and to go, a bottle of Pine Sol – or as the neighborhood changed more and more – a bottle of organic, non-toxic furniture buffing material.

There probably won’t be another Five Seventy coming up the ladder. It was a vestige of Boston of old, kind of like the old Kennedy Butter and Eggs that used to be in every business district and always seemed to employ a personable owner that knew everything about every family that walked in the door.

The Kennedy seemed to fashion itself as mainly a place to get dairy and cold cuts, but in reality was a snow storm mecca and a soda pop mover and shaker. They also stocked half-sour pickles, which I think they made themselves at the stores. Those were a treat back in the days, but no one would ever likely buy them as a snack now the way Mr. Boston used to. I think it was probably the Kennedy Butter & Eggs that started the trend of the corner store.

Soon, every corner had a ‘Spa,’ which is what a corner store typically was called in Boston before it took on a traditional name that wouldn’t confuse people looking for a massage.

I don’t think there are anymore ‘Spas’ left in Boston. The last one I knew of was in Jamaica Plain – the famous Bob’s Spa, where people would come from as far as Allston to buy a lottery ticket. For some reason, Bob’s Spa was known far and wide as the luckiest store on this side of the Charles for the lottery in the 1980s. Younger kids would go there for baseball cards, as it was also known to be lucky in that realm too.

I think the last Kennedy was also in JP, on Centre Street. It’s either a real estate office or a yoga studio now. It’s owner lived all the way out in Hopewell and hung up his deli slicer in the 1990s.

In the Back Bay, DeLuca’s certainly passes the test of a quality corner store, and it might be the best one around. The fruit is fresh and displayed in the best fashion, most times right out on the sidewalk. Now there’s a store that’s been in the family longer than most of us have known how to spend a dollar.

But getting down to the nitty gritty of the corner store, one has to dig deep in the business district – for the place that smells of cheap incense, sells more lottery tickets and Keno than candy bars, and specializes in supervising kids who want to buy single Starbursts for five cents. That’s the real deal. In those places, you’ll find a full line of Goya, a box of Twinkies for $6 and a cooler that seems to be needing an overhaul once a week. Those are the places you get the mystery “red juice” in a plastic cup covered with aluminum and ketchup flavored potato chips from some manufacturer you’ve never heard of.

Now we’re talking.

For my money, these days, the best such joint is in the South End, and known as Casa Cuong. The name says it all, an apparent mixture of Spanish and Vietnamese. I’ve passed by there hundreds of times and enjoyed a cold soda from Cuong on occasion. The owners are there to conduct business, but they are about as helpful as anyone could ask for. You know what you’re getting there, which is the basics and some oddities that are more like museum pieces than stocked items. The front door is a front door – like something you might see on a house in the suburbs. And one can’t go wrong with the large, block letters spelling out its name on that front door.

You know you’ve arrived when the air conditioner leaks on your head as you try to pull the stuck door open, and are greeted with cigarette ads, people playing scratchers and obscure items that might have been on the shelf since the Carter Administration.

Now that’s a Boston corner store.

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