The Nation's Pulse

We Lose Our Grocery Store

Unwelcome reminders of suburban isolation.

By 10.27.06

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"Store closing in one week," the big, hand-lettered signs announced. "20% off sale on all merchandise."

Most people called it Star Market. Its proper name was Lembo's Family Market. The Lembo family had disaffiliated from the Star chain years before. It was a simple, eight-aisle, medium-small grocery store smack in the middle of our town, an easy mile and a half drive from most people's houses, set in a small shopping center next door to a CVS Pharmacy, a liquor store, and a gaggle of smaller shops -- a pet store, a barber shop, a bookstore, a video store, a chowder restaurant.

The owner had taped up an explanatory notice: "After many years, we must close due to higher insurance costs, more competition, and higher labor costs," the note explained. A market Lembo's size finds itself behind the eight ball in the supply chain, too. You learned quickly not to buy things that spoiled, like strawberries or avocadoes. I returned spoiled meat there at least three times before giving up on their meat market entirely.

Nonetheless, everybody in the neighborhood shopped there for grocery staples, household cleaners, paper and plastic goods, packaged and frozen foods, and deli items because it was so handy. From our house, if I needed to shop before dinner, I could make a round trip to Lembo's in 20 minutes. Now, I have to think about grocery shopping and buy for the long term. It's really no fun, when you're a cook, like I am. The closest grocery store -- 20 minutes one-way -- is a Super Stop 'n' Shop, where you get an Olympic-length walk through the aisles, and which, granted, has absolutely everything, and everything of a very high quality.

But it's not the same.

I GOT TO KNOW SEVERAL of Lembo's employees by name. A cashier, Jeannette, a lady of retirement age, became my friend when I used to take my older boy to elementary school, then stopped in to shop with my younger son, Joe. I struck up friendly conversations with the half-dozen local teenagers who worked there, year after year.

And then there was Jimmy.

"Hi, howya doin'?" That was Jimmy, bagging groceries. "Wonderful day, isn't it? I always say, any day you can get up is a good day."

Relentlessly cheerful, almost comically upbeat, Jimmy obviously had something wrong with him, in the cognitive sense. You could see it in his face, which had no age. I don't know if he was 20 or 30 years old. He was small. He was ruddy. He was boyish. He always smiled. And, whatever is the opposite of Tourette's syndrome, Jimmy had it.

"Rain is beautiful, isn't it? It makes all the flowers bloom."

"You can't beat having a good job. I've got the greatest job in the world."

"Hey, little buddy! Howya doin'? Gimme five. C'mon, gimme five. Attaboy. Good piece o' candy, huh?"

He worked at a dead run, packing groceries, retrieving shopping carts from the parking lot in the sometimes incredibly violent weather we get in New England.

"Boy, it's sure snowing out there! Be careful going home now. Best thing in the world, being alive on a stormy day!"

I spoke with Jeannette once during closing week. She's in her seventies, and she did not know whether she would take another job anywhere.

"I don't want to just sit around the house," she said. "I don't know."

Thinking back on that week now, I don't remember seeing Jimmy. I was in and out of the store half a dozen times, loading up on non-perishables of all kinds at a 20 percent discount: mayonnaise, ketchup, dog food, coffee, anything I could think of.

I don't know what happened to Jimmy. I could imagine him sitting home crying. I can also imagine that I'll come across him again working somewhere else, giving out with his relentlessly cheery line of patter.

"Oh, jobs come and jobs go. Doesn't matter. I've got the best job in the world now. It's a great day, just bein' alive."

You tell 'em, Jimmy.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.