JOHNNIE’S FOODMASTER MAY HAVE BEEN the soul of my neighborhood, but it was a soul the neighborhood didn’t quite know it had.
Last November, when I heard it was closing, bought out by Whole Foods, I worried only about the loss of convenience. But soon I began feeling the impending loss in more emotional ways. I’d shopped at the Beacon Street Johnnie’s in Somerville near daily for 13 years; in fact, my casual knowledge of the store went back 39 years, my entire adult life. A sense of loss, even abandonment, washed over me the next time I shopped.
This came as a surprise. Johnnie’s was a slightly dilapidated store, known for low prices, copious beer and wine, and the oddity of being carpeted, albeit in a stained, worn way. It was not, at first glance, a treasure. The spot becoming a Whole Foods should have been seen as a step up for me and my Somerville neighborhood. I was, after all, not immune to Whole Foods’ organic charms.
At Johnnie’s, the vegetables may have been conventional, but the employees weren’t. They had grown on me, becoming a little like family. Not an ideal, photogenic family, like at Whole Foods, maybe, but a real one. I’m self-employed, and a trip to Johnnie’s had sometimes been my public interaction for the day. If a witty remark of mine made a cashier laugh, I’d leave the store with my own mood leavened.
Cheerfulness wasn’t a given at Johnnie’s, but when it did arrive, it felt more trustworthy than at Trader Joe’s, where the cashiers seem to acquire their upbeat attitudes along with their tropical shirts.
Over the years a mild soap opera slowly emerged. One cashier gained a huge engagement ring and a newly friendly attitude. A slightly built young man with a sweet smile made plans to join the Air Force. He needed encouragement: As a high school dropout, he had to earn 15 college credits before his dream could come true. Then there was the beautiful brunette who often bubbled with oddball chatter, some of it deliberately shocking. One day, while bagging some broccoli, she revealed her boyfriend troubles. “It’s not even fair, because I’m a good person,” she told me. The resulting breakup turned her sulky and monosyllabic for months.
For three long weeks Johnnie’s sold off its goods, restocking only milk and eggs. It felt like an estate sale for perishables. Customers streamed in, attracted not so much by the bargains as by the chance to be nice to a friend they’d known for years, a respectable sort who’d fallen on hard times.
By the second week, Johnnie’s began to resemble some big, woebegone 99 cent store. Strange items — paper clips, rubber cement, jump ropes, balloons — were granted prominent space on sparsely arranged shelves. I could find few useful staples left to buy, but I did find an actual stapler. It was like visiting a dying relative in the hospital: The face looked familiar, but the body was skeletal and the spirit had gone missing.
On the store’s last day I stopped to talk to another regular customer. Nearly daily, I’d seen her smoking outside the doors, or sitting in the entranceway scratching lottery tickets. She’d gone from old to ancient over the 13 years we’d been fellow patrons, but we’d never spoken. “What’ll we do without Johnnie’s?” she asked me, her eyes imploring. I couldn’t think of a single verbal palliative. A cashier looked over at me, smiled, and winked. “I betcha didn’t know what you had till it was gone,” he said.
Daniel Todd Gewertz lives in Somerville and recently completed his first novel. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .