Thick fog floats up from the Mystic River. It settles on our village, filling the bare, twisted branches of the giant horse chestnut trees lining Pearl Street. It’s a dense, drippy fog, ebbing, flowing, rising and falling. The deep moaning from the horn at Latimer’s Light is unearthly and strangely soothing. As I see it, Noank in the fog could be the setting for my original drama, circa 1969. Only a set designer could divine such perfect picket fences, carved porches and widow’s walks.
As a sixth-grader 43 years ago, I was fortunate to have a paper route in the heart of the village. Although I’d like to say I was one of The Day’s finest carriers, I wasn’t. I was lost in that fog, literally and figuratively, spending route time and most of its earnings guzzling soda and munching snacks at the Universal Food Store.
Thursdays were the busiest. Mountains of corrugated cases of canned and dry goods balanced on straight roller conveyors. These ran from the back room out into the selling area. Pasquale “Pat” and Sal Quaratella, brothers and business partners, managed the produce and meat departments. Sal’s son, Frank, was a high school teacher. But after school, he was at the market, charming shoppers at the cash register. Between customers, he stocked shelves, usually until long after closing.
Pat kept a pocketknife in his sweater, and whenever I came into the store, he’d be standing by his wooden produce stand, often paring a piece of fruit. He was particularly adroit at salvaging bruised peaches.
“Here, Nicky!” he called. “Best piece of fruit you’ll ever taste.”
“Hell it is. It’s as good as it gets,” he growled. Pat’s method worked with spotty yellow pears, too.
Years later, I still miss Pat and his gruff manner. I miss the man’s compact shadow that grew from the dusty afternoon sunlight in the big front window—the shadow that trailed him as he worked his quirky world. I still think of him when I’m standing in my kitchen, cutting up a peach. I can hear him inveighing, “Learn to defend yourself, Nicky,” when I’d scramble up the steps to his store seeking sanctuary from a bully. “I can’t do this forever,” he’d mutter as I peered from the edge of the window, waiting for the big kid to finish his cigarette, grow bored and go in search of another victim.
When later I became a board member of the Noank Historical Society, I loved visiting the vanished village I’d never known in the museum’s photo collections. My favorite image was an old full shot of the Universal. I imagined rocking on the deep covered porch, cradling a cold bottle of soda, a bag of potato chips on my lap. I could hear the squeak of wagon wheels and the clopping of heavy horse hooves, and smell the manure from these gentle beasts in the dirt street.
The Universal’s greatest legacy lives in the fine joinery of its structure. With every hackmatack support knee and sparlike southern pine lolly column, local ship’s carpenters had built the place as solid as one of the Palmer Shipyard’s wooden ships. In the years before Pat and Sal took over what was then the Shandeor Market, some 2,500 workers paraded down narrow Pearl Street each day to work in the shipyard. Deacon Palmer, I learned, had originally built the place as a company store for his maritime empire.
Long ago there was even a vaudeville theater upstairs. You can still see the dark-stained wainscoted ticket booth and beyond it an abandoned auditorium where dusty light spills from high windows onto an empty raked stage. In the opposite corner, a mahogany bar rests, dusty and dry.
But at 12, I was fairly oblivious to the magical appeal of a village store. Beyond the candy, soda and chips, how was I to appreciate its role in the self-sufficiency and independence of a small Connecticut community? Over time, I slowly came to understand the humble rewards that emerge from living most of a lifetime in the same tiny town. After a few decades, it all sinks in.
I came to know the wonderful qualities of perfect Italian bread, the taste of the olive oil blend and how consistently delicious Universal grinders were. I even learned to laugh when Skip, one of The Universal’s younger butchers, added a rubber band to my liverwurst sandwich. Why? It was Skip’s callow way, I figured, of telling me my order was too complicated. I was angry, but he was 18 and kind of crazy, so I let it go.
Pat died in June 1986; his brother, Sal, soon followed. Pamela Abruzzesse, Pat’s granddaughter, says that with his brother gone, Sal lost his will to live. It didn’t take long for the safe, secure, world I knew at the Universal to turn into a struggle for survival.
The entire operation now rested, uneasily, on Frank’s shoulders, and it was a tough go. The family eventually put the store on the market. Condos were proposed, and the village fought back fiercely until Noank author, investor—and unwitting philanthropist—Stephen Jones, along with his friend Tim Shepherd, stepped in, adding the Universal to their portfolio of historic and authentic community properties.
In time, Jones, with his son, Jeff, updated the Universal. They added air-conditioning, a new floor, new coolers and freezers, but they kept the place much the way it was—except now, with new innards, everything worked. The Universal had a new lease on life, and Frank, as the manager, had the support of a family that cared as much, some say more, about the community as they did about their investment in the building.
Year after year, Frank worked at providing Noank with the convenience and luxury of great grinders, beautifully marbled steaks, fresh turkeys, hams and prime rib for the holidays. He added pizza and stromboli—but all while the Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop influence was making it increasingly difficult for a rational consumer to shop regularly at a tiny, independent market. It simply wasn’t enough to buy an occasional grinder, a quart of milk and an Easter ham. And although the now-seasonal store thrived most summers, the business, Frank complained, lost money off-season.
When I launched the Mystic Chips brand in 1992, Frank gave me the best spot in the store, and we got to know each other as adults. We commiserated about how hard it was to survive as a little guy, especially after the summer residents are gone.
Some say it was tropical storm Irene that finally did in Frank and his struggling market. Others blame an endless recession and a “Buy-One-Get-One-Free” retail America. I say that Frank had simply had enough. On Sept. 2, 2011, the store closed, the coolers and freezers, warmers and humming lights went silent, and the heavy cork cooler door with the steel latch clinked closed a final time.The Universal on Pearl Street went dark. A brokenhearted Frank, I imagined, got into his car and drove away, leaving behind a 65-year family legacy.
Yet as often happens in a magical place, folks would not accept the fact that the village was now without a food store. In a collective act of contrition, town residents decided to fully support a community store, and a new model for small-town retailing was hatched. Operating as a not-for-profit, the group sought dues-paying members and angel investors. Prayers were answered as more than $250,000 in community loans flowed in. More than 400 members were enrolled at $175 each as the doors re-opened.
The Universal thus became The Noank Community Market. After a real-life gestation period of about nine months, the store was born anew on May 5, 2012. With the Noank Community Band playing and politicians braying, thanks and recognition flowed. Afterward, hundreds of well-wishers and new customers stormed the store, shopping and waiting in a long, snaking checkout line. As for me, I was on a personal mission: I headed straight to the meat counter to order a grinder. A beaming clerk named Laurie told me, “You are our first grinder customer!” I ordered boiled ham—I’d lost my taste for liverwurst years ago.
Freezer paper bundle in hand, I snuck out back and ate the sandwich in the empty village post office. Later that day, I told C.J. Lewis, the new manager, that I enjoyed the grinder, but made a few modest suggestions. When I tried again two days later, the new, improved grinder brought me back to my childhood memories of a near-perfect Universal experience.
Hmmm, I thought. A store that listens to its customers. That’s cause for celebration, I reasoned, wishing them well, never wanting to lose another little piece of Noank history.
Interestingly, it was very foggy on the morning when the Universal was reborn as The Noank Community Market. It reminded me of all those mornings in Noank when the warm air competes with the chilly river and Sound. I love fog in part because it has the power to conceal. And as with most small town legends, the layers of tales, and our memories of them, are best left the way we choose to recall them.