Lawrence - My Hometown
Nell’s Variety Store
By Richard E. Noble
Nell’s was one of our corner hangouts. It was a little variety store on the corners of Center and Exchange Streets in North Lawrence. Before it was Nell’s it was Contarino’s. I know because they had a pretty little daughter named Anita. We migrated between Nell’s and Walter’s which was on Center and Spruce Streets.
Nell’s was owned by the Shaheen family. One of their children, Peter, went to school with most of us. George was the dad and Emily was the mom.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and working for a buddy of George, Eddie Solomon, that I found out what a problem our little gang was to poor George and his family business.
Eddie Solomon had a mid-sized grocery store on Broadway. George used to stop in for a little afternoon libation a few times each week. I was a butcher and meat cutter and I was helping Eddie out part-time at his store.
I was really pretty shocked to find out George’s side of the story. Most of us kids thought that we were an asset to Nell’s Variety. After all, didn’t we run to the store to buy bread and milk for mom? Didn’t we contribute to their business buying soda, potato chips, candy bars and the like? Why there were at least 20 to 30 of us guys who hung out at that store on different occasions. We had to provide their little store with a lot of revenue, right?
Well, not really. It seems that we frightened more customers away than what we were worth. Many of George’s friends and relatives were afraid to stop at his store. Ten to twenty kids hanging around the outside of the store was intimidating to most folks. Even the folks who lived in the neighborhood would head to the opposite corner rather than pass through our ranks.
We would be flipping coins up against the wall, or sprawled all over the sidewalk playing poker or forty-fives. We’d sit on people’s steps and even warm up in a tenement hallway on cold winter afternoons. We didn’t think anything about it. We had done it most of our lives. Of course we never hangout in front of our own tenement houses. Our parents wouldn’t tolerate it. You would think that would have given us a little message. But no, it never even entered our minds. And when people in the neighborhood yelled at us or told us to go home, we just ignored them. Our attitude was that they were just grumpy.
George and Emily even moved their store to try to escape us. He rented a store up on the next corner. It was on Lawrence and Exchange Streets across from the Howard playground. When we all came down to the old corner and everything was closed up, we couldn’t figure it. Almost immediately we wandered up to Lawrence Street and started to hangout up there.
As usual the cops arrived on the scene. They always tried to break us up or chase us off. But we were accustomed to that. The cops were like a part of our hanging out tradition. They didn’t make a dent.
Finally instead of trying to chase us off, this one cop pulled up to the Nell’s corner, got out of his cruiser and came over and spoke with a bunch of us. After a long conversation where we supplied all the negative answers to his suggestions, he said, “Why don’t you guys just go across the street and hangout at the Howard playground?” We all snickered. We had been trying to hangout at the Howard for years. The cops had thrown us out time after time. The minute any of the neighbors on Birchwood Road saw us gathering on the wall or up around the baseball dugout, they would be on the phone and the cops would be there in an instant.
“Okay, I am going to give you permission to hangout over at the Howard.”
Was he kidding or what? The chief would have his butt in the office in two minutes.
“Okay,” we all said with a laugh. “We need your name so when the other nine hundred cops come wandering up here, we can tell them that officer so and so gave us permission to hangout at the Howard.”
He told us his name and he wrote it down on a piece of paper. I don’t remember what his name was, but every time another cruiser pulled up to chase us off we would all chant in chorus, “Go see Officer Johnson. He has granted us permission to hangout at this park.”
In the weeks that followed, we saw Officer Johnson many times. When the tenement dwellers and owners on Birchwood Road would call the police station, Officer Johnson would pull up in front of their home. We would watch him knock on their door and step inside their apartment. We couldn’t believe it, but from that time on the Howard was our hangout and George and Nell’s had a corner all to themselves. Officer Johnson even started an inter-corner volleyball tournament, and the gang from the Howard won. We even got our pictures in the Eagle Tribune!
Richard E. Noble was raised in Lawrence, Mass and is now a freelance writer. He has published six books - two of them with Lawrence as their setting, A Summer with Charlie and Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother. A Little Something is a book of poetry much of it inspired by life in Lawrence. Hobo-ing America is a workingman’s tour of the U.S.A and The Eastpointer is selected pieces from his award winning column about life in a sleepy fishing village in the Florida Panhandle. Noble Notes on Famous Folks is his latest production and it contains humorous essays on historical figures from Constantine to Bill Clinton.