It was 1974 and I was about to visit Louis Pearl’s for the first time. As we drove down I-495 from Newburyport to Lawrence, Lenny – my future husband – filled me in on the history of the iconic store, which had been in his family for many years. Pearl’s was started in 1900 by his grandfather, a young Jewish immigrant who had escaped from the pogroms of Czarist Russia when he was 14.
Like many immigrants of the time, Louis worked hard to establish a successful family business. Waves of newcomers from every part of Europe came to work in the enormous brick mills that lined the perimeter of the city, and on the weekends, they flocked downtown to shop and go to the theaters.
During the heyday of Vaudeville and up until the late 1960s, beautiful, ornate theaters graced an area of Broadway called “Theater Row.” Conveniently located next to Theater Row, Pearl’s was the go-to place for generations of theater patrons for its popcorn, candy, and roasted nuts. Another reason for the store’s popularity was its large selection of fine Cuban cigars, which were proudly displayed inside of Lawrence’s largest humidor.
At the time of our visit, Pearl’s was being run by Lenny’s elderly Uncle Morrie, Morrie’s sister Etta, and Lenny’s mom, Betty. As Lenny told it, Morrie, Etta, and Betty could not have been more incompatible, but were bound to one another through necessity and familial duty. Their personality differences were a constant source of tension. The fact that these ongoing family dramas were played out in the anachronistic place that was Louis Pearl’s added a comical and surreal element. As I listened, I was intrigued, amused, and looking forward to this adventure.
We entered the city and drove past the mill buildings and the storefronts on Essex Street. Lenny made a right turn onto Broadway and parked the car. From that first glimpse of empty lots and boarded-up buildings, it was clear that this once glorious part of Lawrence had definitely seen better days. By this time, most of the theaters had been torn down and the faded Louis Pearl sign above one of the storefronts across the street was a sad reminder of what once was.
As we stepped inside, we were greeted by a loud and insistent buzzing sound that pierced the air. Startled, I stepped off the welcome mat and the buzzing mercifully stopped. Two elderly people slowly shuffled toward us from opposite corners of the store, their arms extended in front of them as they leaned heavily on their canes. Uncle Morrie and Aunt Etta’s unexpected and frightening appearance recalled scenes from “The Night of the Living Dead,” but I recovered quickly enough to say hello.
I gazed out on a large, open space that closely resembled the old-fashioned Woolworth’s I fondly remembered from my childhood. It might have been 1974, but this was the store that time forgot. I gazed up at the high, tin-pressed ceilings, and old-fashioned, milky-colored globe lights that hung from the ceiling on long chains. Large wooden counters were scattered throughout the store, each one crowded with an eclectic assortment of stuffed animals and toys. Candy and cigar display cases were to the right of the front door and an old-fashioned nut roaster and popcorn machine occupied pride of place next to the candy and cigars. The fragrance of popcorn and roasted cashews, mixed with the smell of stale cigar smoke, lingered in the air.
Morrie and Etta slowly retreated back to their respective corners. He to schmooze with a small group of cronies who sat smoking cigars in chairs near the back, and she to the card and paper goods section where she could keep an eagle eye on the front door. In a small, family-run business such as Pearl’s, the diverse personalities of the three owners allowed them to gravitate to the jobs that best suited them. Reserved and guarded, Etta and Morrie excelled at security. For them, every shopper was both a potential customer, and a potential shoplifter. Hence, aggressive surveillance was combined with a highly focused sales pitch.
Despite her physical limitations, Etta was particularly adept at this technique, utilizing close physical proximity to the customer along with relentless interrogation. The minute they crossed the threshold, shoppers were closely followed by Etta as she peppered them with questions: Can I help you? What are you looking for? WHAT IS IT, A SECRET?
After a few minutes of this, harried customers either left the store or escaped to the joke section, where they were left to browse in peace under the kinder, gentler approach of Lenny’s mom. Outgoing and funny, Betty was the perfect person to be in charge of this section, which had a large and quirky collection of whoopie cushions, rubber cigars, and Groucho Marx glasses. As we approached the counter, it was not surprising to see that Betty, to the delight of some shoppers, had donned a pair of the Groucho glasses while pretending to puff on a candy cigarette. After some lighthearted banter with her customers, Betty greeted us warmly. We lingered in the joke section for a while and explored the rest of the store. After completing our tour and, feeling tired from our strange afternoon, we decided to say our goodbyes. Before leaving, they generously loaded us up with bags of roasted cashews and assorted candies.
In the years that followed, we would return many times to Louis Pearl’s, but that first visit left an indelible impression in my mind. Louis Pearl’s finally closed its doors in the mid-1980s and with it, an important part of our family history was gone, but not forgotten.
Patty Myers writes from Newburyport.