Thursday, September 29, 2005

Saving the history of neighborhood stores

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Sep 29, 2005): Kathy DiPhilippo grew up in South Portland and has fond memories of the city’s neighborhood stores, so it was no surprise she wanted to include a chapter on them in a book about the city’s history.

What was a surprise was what she found when trying to research them: Next to nothing.

DiPhilippo set out to fill that void and recently published, "South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at our Neighborhood Stores." The book tells the story of local groceries, pharmacies and food spots, like Bennett's Ice Cream Bar in Thornton Heights. She will talk about the book on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m. at Nonesuch Books and Cards in Mill Creek.

DiPhilippo, whose maiden name is Onos, grew up a few steps from L and A Variety at the corner of Broadway and Elm Street, and walked by there every day on her way to and from Kaler School.

“When I was a kid, I would go to Mill Creek and there was King’s and there was Wellwood’s,” said DiPhilippo, who is 37.

DiPhilippo, who is the historian for the South Portland Historical Society, started looking for old photos to illustrate a history of the city.

“There are stores that there are no photographs of,” she said, including L and A. She looked for King’s and Wellwood’s too, coming up empty in the archives of the local society, the Maine Historical Society and Greater Portland Landmarks, though those searches yielded pictures of other stores.

She also started learning about the history of some of the neighborhood shops.

“I’ve read every history of South Portland that I can find” and had never seen much on Uncle Andy’s, founded by John Palanza, so she interviewed him and realized the richness of the stories the shops could tell.

“There are people who love history and there are people who like nostalgia,” and she crafted her book to appeal to both sets, with historical facts and thorough research as well as people’s recollections of the places she describes.

“I interviewed a lot of people in their 80s and a few in their 90s,” she said. “People went to stores and they had memories – wonderful stories.”

As her research drew her deeper she realized the stores alone would fill a book, not just a chapter in a larger work. She asked people about their favorite stores, and also sought out people who could help with oral histories of specific stores of significance.

The time people spent with her, and the depth of their memories, made her feel “a responsibility to document” the history. “It became a quest.”

In the process, she learned that retail sales changed after World War II. Before the war, many stores had old wooden floors with sawdust on them to absorb spills. Goods like flour were sold in bulk from large containers.

Back then, “you’d go down and hang around the store,” and catch up with friends and neighbors who passed through.

After the war came “modern” store innovations like linoleum floors, as well as more pre-packaged food. And supermarkets arose, pushing corner groceries to change or give way.

“The ones that did make it through were the ones that smartly changed to the variety store,” DiPhilippo said.

She continued her search for old photos, eventually scoring a success in the city assessor’s office, which had remnants of an early 20th-century collection of photos of every building in the city.

“All that was left was a couple of ‘B’ streets, not including Broadway” and the streets whose names started with “C,” including Cottage Road, DiPhilippo said. But it had photos of several landmark buildings, such as the building that is now Red’s Dairy Freeze, when it was still a Tastee-Freeze, and before the barn-style roof was put on.

She worked on the book for a year, from the first interviews through sending it to the publisher in July. The mother of three small kids, she had hoped to finish by the end of the school year, but as the deadline neared she realized she wasn’t going to make it, even though she was working every night until 3 a.m.

During the days, her mother would come over to help take care of the two youngest children, who are not yet attending school, while DiPhilippo worked on the book.

“I could not have done it without her,” DiPhilippo said. Sometimes her kids would work on “their books,” pieces of folded paper they would draw or write on, while she worked on hers.

She is now working on two other book ideas, both about local history. “I just love South Portland history,” she said.