Good for grownups, great for kids.
In four months, there’ll be a new—and sad—phrase often heard in East Greenwich. For that matter, you’ll hear it echoing across Rhode Island and southeastern New England, too: “Where Benny’s used to be.”
East Greenwich is one of those rare towns that can boast of having had three Benny’s. The richest I ever felt was back in the early 1960s when Grandma would give me and my brothers a dollar—each!—to spend at Benny’s in downtown East Greenwich. That would have been the town’s second Benny’s.
As pre-teen boys, that store had everything a kid with a buck could want: Silly Putty, water-powered rockets, Slinkys, kites, Matchbox cars and Super Balls among them. Those kinds of memories stick around. That’s why Benny’s Sept. 8 declaration that it would be shutting all 31 of its stores, largely in Rhode Island but with a smattering in Massachusetts and Connecticut, hit many like a punch in the heart.
Old East Greenwich types now scattered far from home Facebooked their memories.
“Benny’s was a wonderland to me when young,” Dana Pickard remembered from Massachusetts.
“I recall several visits to the E.G. store with my dad for his weekend projects…I was a wee lad,” Greg White said from the other side of Narragansett Bay, where he now regularly visits his local Benny’s. “Will be sorely missed!”
“I got my sled at Benny’s in E.G.,” said Anne Foster from Washington state.
“Tell me it ain’t so,” David Henry said from China. “Always had what I needed—or something close enough.”
While I first visited Benny’s in 1961 at the age of 8 (my mother made me walk atop one of the yellow curbstones in its parking lot as a requirement for my Cub Scout Bobcat badge, if memory serves), Benny’s had already been part of East Greenwich for 25 years. What had been known as Benny’s Auto Store opened in town on July 17, 1936, at the corner of Main and Queen streets. In recent years, that location has been home to Alex and Ani and, since earlier this year, the Kai Bar.
“This concern, which operates a number of stores throughout Rhode Island, leased the former Gorman storeroom about 10 days ago and have been very busy since then installing fixtures and getting in and arranging stock,” the Rhode Island Pendulum reported on its front page more than 80 years ago. “The store now presents a very attractive appearance.”
Benny’s, founded by Benjamin Bromberg in Providence in 1924, was where Rhode Islanders went during the Depression for parts to fix their cars (assuming they had cars). Few paid someone else to keep the jalopy chugging back then.
East Greenwich was a bustling town, and the opening of Quonset Point Naval Air Station in 1941 made it even more so. Benny’s needed more space, and Ed Kettelle’s Chrysler dealership was closing after 30 years just down the street. “It is rumored,” the Pendulum reported in its Nov. 15, 1956, edition, “that Benny’s is interested in the location.”
Two weeks later Benny’s took out an ad in the Pendulum. “To our customers in East Greenwich & vicinity,” it declared. “Benny’s Home & Auto Stores opens a new toy store!” The company had added “home” to its name to highlight its growing wares. It would feature, the ad said, “a complete line of Toys, Bicycles, Velocipedes [look it up!], Wagons, Dolls, Carriages and Games at Discount Prices. Come! See! Buy! Save!” Initially, the new East Greenwich location was dubbed “Benny’s Toy Annex,” because the original East Greenwich Benny’s was going to remain open.
The new Benny’s—that first E.G. Benny’s didn’t stay open very long—boasted three times the floor space of the original. “The larger store will permit better display, more items for sale, and a bigger selection for the customer,” the Pendulum reported. It also boasted an auto repair shop at the rear of the store. “A customer can drive his car right inside and have tires, or a battery or seat covers installed while he waits,” it added. And the store would be air-conditioned!
The regular ads were designed to get kids salivating, back when kids read ads in a thing called a newspaper. “THOUSANDS OF TOYS AT SLASHED PRICES,” one proclaimed. “Benny’s invites you and your family (bring the children) to visit Benny’s Toyland, where you will find a Fabulous selection of the Newest, Famous Brand Toys, including BICYCLES—VELOCIPEDES [again!]—WAGONS—TRAINS—AUTOS—
While the kids might scan that toy roster, Mom and Dad’s eye might drift to the last lines of the ad: “USE BENNY’S LAY-A-WAY PLAN! IT’S FREE—NO EXTRA CHARGE. A DEPOSIT WILL HOLD YOUR SELECTIONS.” Young kids of yesteryear apparently couldn’t add 2+2 to figure out where those goodies under the tree on Dec. 25 had come from.
But that second East Greenwich Benny’s was the one that I, and many old-time East Greenwich residents, recall with affection. Its front facade, facing Main Street at its intersection with Friendship, was clad in fire-engine red metal plates accented in white. It looked like a year-round Santa. There were swing sets and lawnmowers parked out front, and an elf I knew only as “Hollis”—at least that’s what everybody called him—waiting for us inside.
Hollis Hawkins was the first adult I knew who treated his customers—even us kids—like adults. He always seemed to be prowling the aisles, and his eyes would light up when he saw us. “C’mon in, boys!” he’d chirp as we made our way inside. “Take a look around!” He didn’t just wow the town’s tykes, either. “Hollis was a totally nice person, very upbeat and optimistic, always giving words of advice, good sense of humor, an ideal manager,” said a young man who worked for him in the East Greenwich Benny’s in the late 1960s. “Great guy to work with.”
Us kids would skip past the shiny bikes and fishing reels—even at Ann & Hope they cost more than a dollar—and head for the Frugal Yankee Kid’s aisle. Yes, there was a section for young girls (my wife, Diane, got her Barbie there), but us boys headed for the balsa gliders, Frisbees, those ping-pong paddles connected to a small rubber ball with an elastic string, Duncan yo-yos and tops, and plastic model cars, complete with decals.
Benny’s became such a local landmark that smaller merchants would add a “behind Benny’s” to their advertisements. It was the Apple Store of the 1960s, at least as far as East Greenwich kids were concerned.
But the music stopped the night of Jan. 6, 1967. Hollis and three Benny’s workers were shutting down just after closing at 9 p.m. when an explosion blew out the large plate-glass windows fronting on Main Street.
I was at the Kent Theater with Joe Alexander, Bill Dowdell and Paul Warburton watching The Professionals, a western starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. We heard sirens screaming as the movie ended, and followed them toward Benny’s, only a block away. Dad was somewhere in the Almacs parking lot, and after we watched the fire for a bit, we took the three other boys home.
Then, God Bless Dad, the two of us returned to the blaze. It was freezing out, and ice was already forming along the gutters as a dozen or more fire trucks poured water onto the conflagration. “Two aerial ladders were raised above the two-story building,” the Pendulum reported, “enabling firemen to dump water directly into the seat of the flame.”
Booms sounded from the second floor—Benny’s stockpiles of paint, turpentine and motor oil had begun exploding—blowing those upper windows out onto the parking lot between Benny’s and Gino Pieraccini’s Kent Pharmacy. A quick mid-fire snack at the Newport Creamery, next to Almacs, couldn’t be had because of the torrents being poured on Benny’s flaming hulk had all but eliminated local water pressure.
“According to Fire Chief Fred Miller, the major problems in fighting the blaze were the icy footing, screens over the upstairs windows, and stacked merchandise inside the windows,” the Pendulum reported the following Thursday in a pair of stories leading the paper (“Benny’s store gutted in stubborn blaze” and “`Will rebuild in E. Greenwich’ owner of Benny’s says”). “Even so, the fire was brought under control in about two hours time.”
Six firemen were injured: Donald Duffy (a fractured vertebra when he slipped on a ladder), Richard Tortolano (Duffy fell on him, cutting Tortolano above one eye and giving him “a beautiful shiner”), Lloyd Dexter (scalp lacerations and a slight concussion), William Cookson (cuts and a bruised hand) Joseph Sherman (a cut hand), and Russell Kettelle (a frostbitten hand). Amazingly, none of the injured, some of whom were transported to Kent County Memorial Hospital for treatment, suffered burns. Apparently, no cause for the blaze ever surfaced in the Pendulum.
By early May 1967, a bigger and better Benny’s was back. “When we looked at the mess that greeted us Saturday morning after the fire, the job looked hopeless,” Malcolm Bromberg, president of the then-30-store chain and son of Benny, said that glorious day. “But we’ve been in East Greenwich so long—and have so many friends here—we were determined to rebuild right on the spot.”
Benny’s added a new three-bay garage to the rear of the store, replacing the ancient O’Brien’s garage at the back end of the lot (some loved Benny’s new-Cooper tire smell; other couldn’t stand it). Things hummed along for decades. “Auto mechanic, full-time, year round work with benefits,” a 1979 classified ad said. “Apply to manager, Benny’s, 609 Main Street, East Greenwich.”
But for a second time, Benny’s growth in East Greenwich forced the family-owned business to look for new quarters. And, like the morning sun rising over Greenwich Cove, scuttlebutt arose again. “Rumors among local merchants have the Benny’s store on Main Street moving to a location at the Post Road plaza” further south on Route 1, the Pendulum reported in July 1993. The next week rumor became fact, as Benny’s confirmed it had purchased the plaza for $2.64 million and would make it its third, and final, East Greenwich home. It would be about five times bigger than the store at 609 Main Street—15 times bigger than its original E.G. location at 232 Main Street. “We feel that with the added room we can offer our customers a fuller assortment of merchandise,” Benny’s vice president Arnold Bromberg—Malcolm’s son and Benny’s grandson—said on the front page of the July 8, 1993, Pendulum.
Just like its first move, Benny’s officials teased the town with the notion of keeping both stores open. But in January 1994, Thorpe’s Liquors bought 609 Main Street, where it remains today.
Yet something was lost in the move. It no longer looked like a Christmas present ready for unwrapping. It looked, kinda, like a W.T. Grants. Even so, Benny’s lasted 41 years longer than Grants, which had a local outpost on Post Road in North Kingstown for about 15 years beginning in the early 1960s. Part of Benny’s charm, of course, was that it didn’t seek to keep up with the times. Rhode Islanders took pride in its decidedly old-fashioned aura.
But nostalgia is an off-line luxury in a world of Amazon.
In July, Diane and I stopped by a Benny’s in Warwick. We were looking for a football to bring to the beach house we rented for a week, after we couldn’t find one at Ocean State Job Lot. That says a lot. So does the fact that the football wasn’t touched during our week on the bay. We had no idea as we left the Wildes Corner store that it marked our final crossing of a Benny’s threshold.
The shuttering of an icon like Benny’s forces you to compare what was with what is. Folks who have been alive for most of Benny’s existence will invariably find today lacking, and the prospect of a Bennyless 2018 bleak.
F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” he wrote in The Great Gatsby in 1924, the same year Benny’s was founded. Those words adorn his grave, and that of his wife, Zelda Sayre, not far from my Maryland home.
Back in East Greenwich, Grandma now rests in Glenwood Cemetery. Hollis Hawkins is buried in the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter.
Benny’s will soon join them.
But we shouldn’t mourn its loss. Instead, we should toast the way it served Rhode Islanders—especially kids of a certain age—for nearly a century.
– Mark Thompson