Old Salem Shops

I WONDER how many people have memories as vivid as mine of the quaint shops which a score of years ago stood placidly along the quiet streets of Salem. In the Salem of to-day there are few innovations. Not many modern buildings have replaced the time-honored landmarks ; yet twenty years ago Salem, in certain aspects, was far more like an old colonial town than it is now. When the proprietor of an old shop died it was seldom that a new master entered. Nobody new ever came to Salem, and everybody then living there had already his legitimate occupation. The old shops, lacking tenants, went to sleep. Their green shutters were closed, and they were laid up in ordinary without comment from any one.

I remember one shop of the variety known in Salem as “ button stores.” It was kept by two quaint old sisters, whose family name I never knew. We always called them Miss Martha and Miss Sibyl. Miss Martha was the older, and sported a magnificent turban, of wonderful construction. Miss Sibyl wore caps and little wintry curls. Both had shortwaisted gowns, much shirred toward the belts, and odd little housewives of green leather, which hung from their apronbindings by green ribbons.

Their wares were few and faded. They had a sparse collection of crewels, old-fashioned laces, little crimped cakes of white wax, and emery balls in futile imitation of strawberries. They sold handkerchiefs, antiquated gauze, and brocaded ribbons, and did embroidery stamping for ladies with much care and deliberation. I remember being once sent to take to these ladies an article which was to be stamped with a single letter. Miss Martha consulted at some length with her sister, and then, with an air of gentle importance, said to me, “ Tell your mother, dear, that sister Sibyl will have it ready in one week, certainly.”

On another occasion Miss Sibyl had chanced to give me a penny too much in change; discovering which before I was well away, I returned to the shop and told her of the mistake. Miss Sibyl dropped the penny into the little till,— so slender were the means of these old gentlewomen that I believe even a penny was of importance to them, — and in her gentle voice, she asked, “ What is your name, dear ? ” and when I told her she replied, approvingly, “ Well, you are an honest child, and you may go home and tell your mother that Miss Sibyl said so.” To this commendation she added the gift of a bit of pink gauze ribbon, brocaded with little yellow and lavender leaves, and I returned to my family in a condition of such conscious virtue that I am convinced that I must have been quite insufferable for some days following.

The only article in which these ladies dealt which specially concerned us children was a sort of gay-colored beads, such as were used in making bags and reticules—that fine old bead embroidery which some people show nowadays as the work of their great-grandmothers. These beads were highly valued by Salem children, and were sold for a penny a thimbleful. They were measured out in a small mustard-spoon of yellow wood, and it took three ladlefuls to fill the thimble. I cannot forget the air of placid and judicial gravity with which dear Miss Martha measured out a cent’s worth of beads.

One winter day Miss Sibyl died. The green shutters of the shop were bowed with black ribbons, and a bit of rusty black crape fluttered from the knob of the half-glass door, inside of which the curtains were drawn as for a Sunday. For a whole week the shop was decorously closed. When it was reopened, only Miss Martha, a little older and grayer and more gently serious, stood behind the scantily filled show-case. My mother went in with me that day and bought some laces. Miss Martha folded each piece about a card and secured the ends with pins, after her usual careful fashion, and made out the quaint little receipted bill which she always insisted on furnishing customers. As she handed the parcel across tire counter she answered a look in my mother’s eyes. “ I did not think she would go first,” she said, simply. “ Sibyl was very young to die.”

In the following autumn came Miss Martha’s turn to go. Then the shutters were closed forever. Nobody took the store. The winter snows drifted unchecked into the narrow doorway, and the bit of black crape, affixed to the latch by friendly hands, waved forlornly in the chilly winds and shivered in the air, — a thing to affect a child weirdly, and to be hastened past with a “ creepy ” sensation in the uncertain grayness of a winter twilight.

Another well-remembered Salem shop was the little establishment of a certain Mrs. Birmingham. This store was really a more joyous and favorite resort for children than the aristocratic precincts of Miss Martha and Miss Sibyl. One reason for this was that, while two gentler souls never lived, these ladies belonged to a generation when children were kept in their places, and were to be seen and not heard. This fact flavored their kindly treatment of young people, and we felt it. Then, too, save for the beads, their wares were not attractive to little folk ; and, lastly, there was a constraint in the prim neatness, the mystic, half-perceived odor of some old Indian perfume, and the general air of decayed gentility that hung about the shop of the two old gentlewomen, which pertained not at all to the thoroughly vulgar but alluring domain of Mrs. Birmingham.

This shop was not on Essex Street, the street of shops, but upon a quiet byway, devoted to respectable dwellinghouses, and for this reason we were free to visit Mrs. Birmingham’s whenever we chose. It was a tiny house, and I believe it had beside it a very shabby and seedy garden. There were two windows with green wooden shutters, and a green door with the upper half of glass. This was once the fashionable manner of stores in Salem. Inside the door was a step, down which one always fell incontinently; for even if one remembered its existence, it was so narrow and the door closed on its spring so suddenly behind one that there was no choice but to fall. The very name of Birmingham brings up the curious odor of that shop. There was, above all, a close and musty and atticlike perfume. Mingling with this was a perception of cellar mould, a hint of cheese, a dash of tobacco and cabbage ; a scent of camphor, a suspicion of snuff, and a strong undercurrent of warm black gown scorched by being too near an airtight stove. Mrs. Birmingham’s stock equaled Buttercup’s in variety. Along the floor in front of the left-hand counter was always a row of lusty green cabbages and a basket of apples. A small glass show-case held bread and buns and brick-shaped sheets of livid gingerbread. If one came to buy milk, Mrs. Birmingham dipped it from a never empty pan on the right-hand counter, wherein sundry hapless flies went, like Ophelia, to a moist death. Then there were ribbons, and cotton laces ; needles, pins, perfumed soaps, and pomatums. There were a few jars of red-and-white peppermint and cinnamon sticks, a box of pink corncake, — which Mrs. Birmingham conscientiously refused to sell to children, for fear the coloring matter might be poisonous, — and in season and out, on a line above the righthand counter, hung a row of those dismal creations, the valentines known as “comic.” All these articles, though shabby and shop-worn enough, probably, possessed for us children a species of fascination. There was a glamour in the very smell before referred to, and the height of our worldly ambition was to have a shop “just like Mrs. Birmingham’s.”

The things for which we sought Mrs. Birmingham’s were, however, chiefly of two sorts. The first was a kind of small jointed wooden doll, about three inches high. In the face they generally looked like Mrs. Birmingham, and they had little red boots painted on their stubby feet. These ugly little puppets cost a cent apiece, and were much prized as servant dolls, nurses particularly, because their arms would crook, and they could be made to hold baby dolls in a rigid but highly satisfactory manner. This flexibility of limb had also, by the bye, its unpleasant side ; for my brother Tom had a vicious habit, if ever the baby-house were left unguarded, of bending the doll’s joints, and leaving the poor little manikins in all manner of ungainly and indecorous attitudes. Another thing which could be bought for one cent — the limit of our purses when we went shopping, and it required six or seven of us to spend this sum — was a string of curious little beads made of red sealing-wax. They were somehow moulded on the string while warm, and could not be slipped off. We really did not like them very well, yet we were always buying them and despite our experience trying to slip them from the string.

There was a bell fastened to the top of Mrs. Birmingham’s shop door, which jangled as one precipitately entered, and summoned Mrs. Birmingham from an inner room. Mrs. Birmingham was a stout Irishwoman, with black eyes, fat hands, and a remarkably fiery nose. She wore a rusty black gown — the same, probably, which, when not in use, was always scorching before the stove in the back room — and a false front dark as the raven’s wing. I believe she must have worn some sort of cap, because, without recalling just where she had them, I never think of her without a distinct impression of dark purple ribbons. She was by no means an amiable woman, and in serving us she had a way of casting our pennies contemptuously into the till which was humiliating in the extreme. She had likewise a habit of never believing that we had a commission right, and persisted in sending us home to make sure that we were sent for a ten and not a five cent loaf, or for one and not two dozen of eggs. This was painful and crushing to our pride, but the bravest never rebelled against Mrs. Birmingham. My brother used, indeed, to lurk around the corner a few minutes, and then return to the shop without having gone home; but I always feared Mrs. Birmingham’s sharp black eyes, and felt that a dies irഋ would certainly come for Tom, when all would he discovered.

In addition to the shop Mrs. Birmingham conducted an intelligence office in the back room. I never saw one of the girls, nor knew of any person’s going to Mrs. Birmingham to seek intelligence; but sometimes we heard laughter, and very often Mrs. Birmingham’s deep bass voice exclaimed, “ Mike, be off wid yer jokin’ now ! Let alone tellin’ stories til the gurrels ! ”

“ Mike ” was Mr. Birmingham, a onelegged man, whom I never saw. We knew that he was one-legged because Tom had seen him, and we secretly believed this to be the reason of Mrs. Birmingham’s dressing in mourning. We children had asked and been told the nature and purpose of an intelligence office, and yet there was ever a sort of uncanny mystery about that back room, where unseen girls laughed, and Mr. Birmingham was always being told to “ be off wid his jokin’.”

But tempora mutantur. Alas for Mike! he is off with all joking now for good. Alas, too, for Mrs. Birmingham ! I cannot believe that she died, she was so invincible ; but she is gone. The rusty black gown, the purple ribbons, and the ruddy nose have passed somewhere into the shadows of oblivion.

One more shop there was in which, at a certain season, the souls of the children rejoiced. It was not much of a shop at ordinary times ; indeed, it was but a small and unnoticeablc building just around a corner of Essex Street. It was only at holiday time that it blossomed out of insignificance. It was before the days of any extent of holiday decoration, and very little in the way of Christmas trimming was done by Salem tradesmen. The season was celebrated with decorous merriment in our homes, but almost no church adornment was seen, and most of the shops relaxed not from their customary Salem air of eminent and grave respectability. No poulterer sent home a spray of holly with the goose, and no Christmas cards dropped, as now, from the packages of baker or candlestick maker. It was therefore the more delightful to witness the annual transformation of the little shop around the Essex Street corner. The very heart and soul of Christmastide must have dwelt in the plump body of the man who kept that shop. His wooden awning was converted into a perfect arbor, under which the front of his little store showed as an enchanted cavern of untold beauty. A bower of lusty greenery, aglow at night with the starry brilliance of many candles, gay with the scarlet berries of holly, set off by the mystic mistletoe, and rich with Aladdin treasures of sugary birds and beasts, ropes of snowy popped corn, bewildering braids, twists and baskets of pink-and-white sugar, golden oranges, — a rarer fruit then than now, — white grapes in luscious clusters, and bunches of those lovely cherries of clear red barley candy with yellow broom corn for stems. After all, though, it was not so much that the wares were more delightful than those kept by other folk. Probably the very same things could have been bought at any fruit store. It was simply that this tiny shop and its plump, red-cheeked owner were overflowing with the subtle and joyous spirit of keeping holiday. We children used always to call his place “ the Christmas shop; ” and I well remember the thrill of joy which ran over me when, returning from school one afternoon, I saw my own parents entering the jovial precincts. I sped home on wingèd feet to tell the other children that “ mother and father were in the Christmas shop ; ” and we all sat about the fire in the twilight and “ guessed ” what they were buying, and reveled in the dear delights which were to result from a visit to the “ enchanted bazar.”

Where is he now, that child-like man who loved the holidays ? The merry wight was twenty years before his time, but it warms one’s heart to think of him to-day. Alas, a visit to Salem last year found his wooden awning torn away, and in his dismantled bower a dry and wizened stationer among law books and school-room furnishings. What a direful change from the halcyon days of old ! I wonder that the chubby ghost of the former owner does not walk o’ nights to bemoan the times that are no more.

The shop of Miss Martha and Miss Sibyl, too, seemed to be entirely done away with, and Mrs. Birmingham’s, although still standing, was but a wreck. I would gladly have bought there, for old times’ sake, a jointed doll or a string of sealing-wax beads; but the green wooden shutters were closed, the green door sunken sadly on its hinges, its glass half grossly boarded. The grass grew high before the doorstone. The mossy roof was concave. The chimney was almost tottering. The little shop was drawing itself together and dying ; asking no sympathy of the beholder, but meeting its appointed fate with that gray and silent resignation which alone is considered the proper thing in Salem society.

Eleanor Putnam.