Pal Keith was ruminating the other day about his recent trip to Berlin, and how much its high-density, pedestrian-friendly model contrasts with the auto-happy sprawl on this side of the pond. Some of that can be chalked up to the encirclement the west sector of that city experienced during the Cold War, along with Europe’s very different attitudes about cosmopolitan urbanity.
At the same time, though, it got me to thinking about the Woburn of my childhood. Because of my parents’ odd work schedules, I spent a good portion of my pre-school years in the company of my maternal grandmother who lived in a duplex on the outer fringe of Woburn Center. She did not get her driver’s license until 1980. She didn’t need to. All the goods and services she required were within walking distance.
I used to tag along with her on these trips, which started off with a southbound trek along Main Street to the Woburn National Bank, then worked their way back to Hammond Square with a number of stops along the way.
Brigham’s Ice Cream was next door to the bank, and sometimes we’d get a booth and savor an ice cream cone with jimmies (followed by my Nana cleaning the chocolate residue from my face with a hankie and a dollop of her spit). Then came Woolworth’s for assorted small sundries, followed by Adrian’s for sewing supplies and Gorins for clothing.
I’d been trying to find a photo of Gorins’ unique storefront for years but kept coming up empty until this morning, when I stumbled across this full-color image.
The blue bits were actually opalescent glass that changed from vivid blue to a dark purple, depending on how the light hit the facade. I also got a fragment of it embedded in my eye during my early teens. A demolition crew was going at it with hammers in preparation for the store’s rebirth as a CVS. They did put a safety tarp up to keep the bits from wandering, but it couldn’t handle the sudden gust of wind which sent a small shard my way just I was was looking up at the half-trashed signage.
My mom flushed it out with some homebrew eyewash (as was her custom) with no lingering damage apart from thinking “that fucking place almost blinded me” whenever I pass by that CVS location.
Gorins is also the first thing I think of whenever a “why don’t kids read comics like they used to” discussion drifts my way. The place had fuck all of interest for a restless child, just racks upon racks of discount fashionwear. A few quarters dropped on some Donald Duck funnybooks at Woolworths or the latest issue of Brave and the Bold at the newsstand around the corner could buy a harried adult enough of window to pick out a new sweater or pair of slacks. Comics were a disposable distraction, a role that has been assumed — with far more glitz and versatility — by smartphones and other handheld consumer electronics. If the tech had existed back then, I’d have preferred goofing around on a mobile game over reading some random issue of Superman while sitting next to a rack of polyester hip-huggers, as well.
The taller brick building in the photo with the “DRUGS” sign used to host the Silver Cue billiard hall on its the second floor, which was where Teen Andrew first played Marble Madness, Jackal, and Vigilante. Across the street was a four-story mixed-use building which housed a martial arts studio during the Seventies and kept the pagoda-inspired external trim for a decade after the business vacated the space. The ground floor housed a hair salon with a large airbrushed photo of George Peppard in the window, next to a placard boasting how one of their stylists worked on his hair during the Banacek days.
On the opposite side of “the Busy Bend” was Royal Furniture, Silverman’s Menswear, and the apparently immutable place where I had my first and (as of this writing) latest haircuts.
I’d completely forgotten about Royal, and uttered a soft “holy fuck” when I came across the above image in the Woburn Public Library’s digital archives. None of my family shopped there, but it was such a physical-temporal landmark of my early years. Between the weird wedge shape of the building and the pink-red neon signage. I’m shocked it could slip from memory. (It was eventually rounded off, and hosted a couple of breakfast eateries and a dry cleaning place before entering its present vacant state.
Silverman’s was where you had to go to buy the Tanner-branded gym shorts and reversible black-and-orange t-shirt required for junior high PE class. It also sold other articles of Wu-themed athletic gear and official school jackets, with personalized embroidery an optional extra. (I had a Woburn jacket with “Andy” on the breast because my younger self tried so fucking hard before getting hep to the jive.)
Further on down was the seafood place (which was actually two or three sequential businesses occupying the same storefront) where my Nana would buy her beloved fillets and I’d gawk at the live lobster tank and octopus parts.
After that was Lucia’s, an independent supermarket built around a butcher shop where my Nana got fixings for the evening meal and either a box of Table Talk chocolate eclairs or a Boston Cream pie. Then we’d trundle two blocks back to my grandma’s home, where I’d flop down on her living room carpet with whatever little treasures she’d had allowed me to purchase during the expedition.
This was her regular routine — supplemented by my grandfather driving her to Sears or Finast if required — for years. It only changed after she got her license, which also happened to be around the time Woburn Center’s major retail anchors started to disappear. Woolworth’s was gone before I finished primary school, replaced by the Christy’s Market where I bought Web of Spider-Man #1 from a spinner rack, and later a tax preparation place. Gorins and Lucia’s lasted until shortly after my family moved into the other side of my grandmother’s place, becoming a CVS and series of convenience stores that enabled my junk food and tobacco habits through the new Millennium.
I don’t know when Silverman’s vanished, but the place now houses a music store I walk past on my trips to the ever-unchanging barbershop. The Woburn National Bank and Brigham’s lasted into my college years, and there were a few times where I’d cash my scholarship excess check at the former and then have a celebratory feast with Maura at the latter. The bank eventually sold out to Citizens, and I shifted my money elsewhere after dealing with a complete prick of a bank teller who got pissy because my signature was “illegible.” Brigham’s suffered a franchise-wide retrenchment and the place was re-opened as a Chinese take-out place.
My grandmother herself has been gone a year, the house where I spent a significant part of my life cleaned out and sold off to the highest bidder. Woburn Center keeps trying to transform itself, mostly through fitful efforts to remold itself into a “model New England” retail district — wooden signs and cast iron fixtures and other nonsense evoking bygone times the district never actually experienced. The place was always rough and tumble and more than a little seamy, as befitting an agricultural-industrial hub. Woburn was already entering a post-industrial phase when the post-WW2 suburban boom took off, and it lacked the open space and uncluttered topography of its more rural (and now more upscale) neighbors. (Most of the North Woburn “wilderness” I grew up in consisted of old industrial sites which nature had reclaimed.)
That hasn’t stopped the powers-that-be from trying, even if it means trading ambivalent civic character for vapid blandness.