PITTSFIELD -- Having been born and raised on Union Street, with "upstreet" just a block away, it was a weekly event to come home from St. Joseph's Grammar School and have my Mom take my sitter and me shopping. North Street was indeed the "heart of the Berkshires" in the 1960s, and when December rolled around it was magical. With the overhead lights, the lavishly decorated shop windows, the stores bursting with goods and decorations and the bell ringing by the Salvation Army kettle, it would set the heart of a 9-year-old boy aflutter.
We would walk down Union Street toward the Capitol Theater and take a right at the Pro Drug heading down North Street. The first stop was at Sam's Army and Navy. No, not inside but at those old penny gum vending machines that were out on the sidewalk. I don't think there was a kid in Pittsfield who didn't know that if you put in your penny and very carefully pulled the lever until the gum dropped you could quickly snap it again and get two sticks. There you go -- buy one, get one free started in Pittsfield! I recall being particularly fond of Teaberrys and Beamans. Of course, I would give a stick to my sister. Santa would dig that!
Resuming our journey south past the Meyers Store and Besse's, we would often stop at Kennedy's for some butter. This particular time we didn't mind a bit because we knew this butter would wind up in Mom's Christmas goodies. It had only been five or six years earlier that I have vague memories of standing in a line back up Columbus Avenue just to buy butter during the war.
Out once again in the crisp air with a few welcome snowflakes adding to the festive feeling, we got a big break. Mom didn't need to go into the Bell Shops. Even though I was allowed to stay outside, what self-respecting 9-year-old boy wanted to be seen anywhere near those windows with Christmas-decorated unmentionables all over the place? Whew!
But a few more steps across Columbus we hit paydirt. At the Federal Bakery, what to my wondering eyes should appear? -- a tray of gingerbread men and ladies fresh from the oven. This required a stop on the way home if we were good. The freebie piece of gum that I gave my sister two blocks ago was already paying dividends.
Next on our agenda was the 5 and 10's. It was approaching dusk so we couldn't hit them all. We passed Grant's and even though Woolworth's had an operating Marx train layout, I wanted to spend more time at the next place. Is there any local resident of a certain age reading this that doesn't know I am talking about England Brothers? This was Mecca! The bright decorations, the sweet-smelling perfume counter and those new-fangled escalators in the back. Best of all, Mom had business on the fifth floor and I was allowed to wait for her on the fourth. Absolute heaven! Toyland, where the real Santa took up residence.
Although he was "busy" that day it didn't matter. I really wanted to go watch the trains, both a Lionel and American Flyer layout. When Mom came to get me, I could show her the engine that was number 1 on my list.
A quick dash out of England's and into Newberry's. This was my favorite 5 & 10. Downstairs, Santa had assigned one of his helpers to talk to all the good little boys and girls, although I learned later in life there was a gentleman named Chris Piggott who might disagree with that perception. Upstairs I can remember picking out a couple of replacement bulbs for the tree and stopping at the counter that had all the little wax candles of angels, choirboys and trees for 10 cents. I spent five cents on a small snow-covered pine tree for my trains. Outside Newberry's, Mom walked slowly past Kreuger's so I could walk through the front of the store to watch the donut machine flip the dough as they cooked in the grease.
It was getting late, but we walked to Park Square to view the tree in the center surrounded by a smaller tree at each of the four entrances. It was chilly but it was supposed to be. It was Christmas time in the city.
We turned now to head home but we had a little more shopping to do. Holden Stone was about a block away. Mom had some purchases to make at the front counter, but I didn't mind waiting in Holden's. I could sit for hours and watch those little carriages carrying slips and cash back to the office. It was a veritable transit system running overhead through tracks and switches back and forth.
There was one more stop to make on that side of the street. Up we walked to Eagle Street and then down to the electric company building. It was an interesting place with appliances and scientific displays, and the Christmas decorations (naturally, they were lit) made it all the more festive. These were the days when the only cartoons to be seen were at the movies. I can remember being fascinated by Ready Kilowatt.
Back we trod up Eagle Street and checked out the latest news and weather on the Berkshire Eagle's bulletin board on the bridge. Actually, I was checking to see if any trains were coming. Back then it could have been a steam engine. We crossed over North again and luckily bought the last two gingerbread cookies at the Federal Bakery.
Five minutes later we were home where Dad was waiting. He was pleased at my Mom's report of how good we had been. A very happy and loving Ryan family partook of the evening meal and their gingerbread dessert.
A longtime city resident, Joseph W. Ryan is a former City Council president.