Joseph Grande: City's events release a flood of memories
First, it was the closing of the venerable North Adams Transcript, the voice of North Berkshire for more than 170 years where I worked after college as a cub reporter and then editor. Then, it was the shuttering of North Adams Regional Hospital, an institution which met North County health care needs for decades and the spot where I was born. And then only days ago, it was the demolition of a century-old building at the corner of River and Houghton Streets, a special place from my childhood.
For North Adams natives like me, the difficult events of the last few months have led to disappointment, sadness, and a flood of memories that defined my youth and attested to North Adams’ greatness during the Sprague Electric years. Nothing hit me harder than the decision to raze the River Street Package Store building at 177 River St. where my father operated his shoe repair business for nearly four decades. Grande & Son Shoe Repair was located in the same building at 175 River St. in the ground floor space adjacent to the package store. My grandfather opened the shop in 1936 and my father joined him in 1950, operating the business until his retirement in 1984. The shop was situated at that great crossroad, footsteps from the former sprawling manufacturing complex operated by Sprague’s.
For me, the unfortunate event unlocked fond recollections of a once thriving spot -- a meeting place for locals and where my father plied his trade. Around the corner in the same building was a beauty parlor and Diggen’s TV Repair. It was the 1970s and early 1980s and North Adams was still on top of its game. There were plenty of good jobs that supported a thriving and prosperous blue-collar community.
We were an all-American city in the mid-1970s under former Mayor Joseph Bianco and the Tunnel City was a wonderful place to live and raise a family. The 8 o’clock whistle blew each morning at Sprague’s, signaling the start of the workday. And at quitting time, the path of many employees who emerged from the Marshall Street gates often led to my father’s shop which he rented from then package store owner Billy Salavantis. My father kept the shop open well past 5 p.m. to allow Sprague workers to pick up their shoes.
I tended the store often so he could do some errands. The signature smell of fine leather and rubber and the loud, noisy belts that ran the big Landis multi-station sanding, buffing, and finishing machine were always a reminder that my father was working hard to support his family. The strong Barge cement used to attach new soles and heels was sharp and pungent. He was a meticulous, accomplished craftsman -- regarded as one of the best cobblers in Berkshire County -- who built shoes here and also in Italy with his father.
There was always time for a break, when old local friends like T. William (Red) Lewis, longtime North Berkshire chief probation officer, and state employee Joe Marino would stop by. They talked about everything from local politics to fine Italian pastry. Longtime paisanos like Rocco Trimarchi, Felix Puccio and Joe Vigna sat in the two large oak shoe-shine chairs and also engaged my father, who wore his big apron. I remember the rapid fire, sometimes heated Italian conversations as I walked in.
Even Sprague founder R.C. Sprague would stop occasionally to pick up his shoes. Our house on Veazie Street was minutes away and I stopped in en route to catechism or to St. Anthony Parish Center to play basketball. My father would hand me a few coins from the register so I could buy a soda and a snack next door.
The business faced challenges later when cheap imports flooded the U.S. market. Consumers bought less expensive footwear and decided against new heels and soles. Shoes made of low-quality synthetic materials emerged and I remember my father’s complaints that they were unfixable. He was a purist when it came to his craft and I knew he was discouraged that the business was being commoditized and his livelihood was slowly becoming a dying art. He realized the need to work two jobs; later operating the shoe repair shop at reduced hours and ultimately finding a part-time position at Price Chopper supermarket.
The new property owner, Porches Inn, razed the building, presumably for a new development someday. Like other notable buildings that occupy a special place in the city’s history, the River Street Package Store building symbolized business at its best. The footsteps and the energy at that corner were the heartbeat of North Adams. And my father’s shop and the package store were part of the unique fabric of the city which was further embodied by the tight-knit neighborhoods and hard-working families whose pride and spirit never waned until tested by the loss of Sprague’s.
There will be many who will argue that North Adams hasn’t recovered from that fateful loss of manufacturing jobs. Like 1986, when Sprague’s left the city, North Adams again finds itself at yet another crossroad. Even though I left the city in 1990 and have since lived and worked in Dalton, I’ve always held North Adams close to my heart. Still residing there are my brother and 94-year-old mother who have the same attachment.
That’s why I’m optimistic and hopeful that after this new round of challenges, the city will again regain its footing and reclaim the confidence and pride that for so long made it a grand place; where a cobbler and package store owner could make a difference and a city was better off.
A North Adams native, Joseph Grande works as a PR/communications advisor to companies in the plastics industry. He lives in Dalton with his family.
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