A piece of the old North End goes with them
On Wednesday night, as the first tentative flurries of snow began to fall on an unusually muted North End, Peppi Giangregorio was sitting on a folding chair in the Green Cross Pharmacy, next to the greeting cards, receiving visitors.
“It’s like a wake,” he said. “It’s nice everybody’s coming by, but the reason is not so nice.”
His baby brother, Freddy, stood nearby in his baby blue pharmacist’s smock and shrugged.
It was a sad shrug, just the same.
Giuseppe (Peppi) Giangregorio is 82. Fernando (Freddy) Giangregorio is 80. They opened their business 55 years ago, taking over a corner store that has been a pharmacy for over a century. But on Tuesday, at precisely 9 p.m., Green Cross will close for good.
CVS, the corporate behemoth that sits at the other end of Hanover Street, bought them out. Now CVS is the only show in the North End.
The Giangregorio brothers are retiring reluctantly. This week, a steady stream of customers and neighbors has flooded in, in some cases tearfully explaining just how much the Giangregorios mean to them and the neighborhood.
But their age and the frustration of dealing with the maddening bureaucratic headache that is insurance made the decision for the two brothers.
As go the Giangregorio brothers, so goes another piece of the old North End.
They grew up in Apice, a small town in the Campania region of southern Italy. Their father was killed in World War II, and in the hard years that followed, their mother began saving to take them to Boston, where she had been born before moving to Italy when she was 7.
They arrived in Boston when they were in their early teens. Peppi worked in a shoe factory and Freddy got a job in a pastry shop, until the family could get on its feet. They learned English fast and Freddy followed Peppi into Christopher Columbus High School, then into the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
When they were in high school, they began working the counter at the luncheonette Anthony Amadeo had inside his pharmacy at the corner of Hanover and Clark streets, right next to St. Stephen’s Church. When Mr. Amadeo mentioned he wanted to sell his business, Peppi and Freddy looked at each other. It was 1964, they were in their 20s and they were ready.
Freddy worked at Green Cross during the day, then worked nights as a pharmacist at what became Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Peppi arranged his schedule so he worked at New England Medical Center during the day, then Green Cross at night. Sixteen-hour days were the norm.
Peppi and Freddy were Old World and old school. More gentlemen than businessmen, and they were good businessmen. You could eat off the sidewalk in front of their shop because they swept it so often. If you were short on cash, they let you run a tab. They were especially solicitous of immigrants who didn’t speak English.
Their customer service was legendary.
Mariellen Burns, who has lived in the North End for more than 20 years, called the pharmacy one day about 15 years ago, so sick she couldn’t get out of bed. Not long after, Freddy’s son, Joe, appeared at her door with her medicine.
Over the past few decades, as a lot of native North Enders moved to the suburbs, they worried about their parents, especially widowed mothers, who insisted on staying in the old neighborhood. Peppi and Freddy were a lifeline, checking in on the elderly and delivering their prescriptions.
“Taking care of the older folks, the disabled especially,” Freddy said. “That was our mission.”
If everyone who walked into Green Cross had bought something, Peppi and Freddy would be billionaires. But, just as often, people came in to shake a hand, shoot the breeze, or ask about the elderly lady from Sicily who lived on Prince Street and hadn’t been seen for a while.
“We wanted people to come in and talk,” Peppi said. “Business is business. But life is life.”
Because their store is across from Paul Revere’s statue, the Giangregorios had more than their share of tourists, and the city never had better ambassadors.
Peppi has more names than a phone book. Giuseppe. Joseph. Joey. Peppino. But Freddy always called his big brother Joe. Peppi did as much as anyone in the city to promote the Italian language, so that it still floats up and down Hanover Street on summer nights like a cool breeze.
Peppi and Freddy resisted modernity in all its impersonal quirks. They had the last soda fountain in the North End. They didn’t take credit cards until about five years ago, when they realized so many of the young professionals in the neighborhood had flex spending health care accounts.
The North End used to be built around merchants like the Giangregorios. They didn’t care what Yelp might say about them. They cared about what your aunt might say about them. Now, like so many others, theirs will become the domain of corporations, not characters. The North End retains the trappings of an Italian neighborhood with fewer and fewer Italians.
Freddy eventually moved out of the neighborhood, to a land far, far away.
“I live in Revere,” he said.
To celebrate his retirement, he and his wife, Rachele, who everybody calls Ellie, are going to visit Italy.
Peppi lives above the pharmacy.
“I’m not going anywhere but upstairs,” Peppi Giangregorio said, and so, as 9 p.m. passed and the lights snapped off, one by one, he went upstairs.