Saturday, September 16, 2017

Farewell, Benny's.

Some bad news from Southern New England: it was announced last week that Rhode Island-based retail chain Benny's will close all 31 of its stores and cease operations by the end of the year. A family-owned company still run by the grandchildren of the man who started the business in 1924, Benny's has long been appreciated by many residents of Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Connecticut as a friendly, community-oriented alternative to large and impersonal corporate retailers. In recent years, Benny's advertised itself as "Your Favorite Store," a title that accurately reflected the sentiments of many customers. As New Bedford Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane recently wrote, these warm feelings made the news of the chain's demise a particularly bitter blow:
It takes a lot in a cynical newsroom to send folks into shock. Even more to send us into dismay.

When we found out Benny's will soon be gone, a lot of us were in dismay.

Because there was a time when all stores were like Benny's. The old five-and-dimes, the Main Street hardware stores, the corner drug stores.

But they’re all long gone now. Except for Benny's.
In spite its undeniable place in the hearts of many Southern New England residents, Benny's can also be difficult to classify given the eclectic yet often highly specific nature of its inventory. Signs on the outside of the building tended to identify Benny's as a "home and auto store," but that isn't really an adequate description; for many loyal customers, Benny's was the sort of store that one would visit for slightly obscure items that were difficult to find elsewhere. Benny's was often the place where I would go to buy shoelaces and pocket combs, though when I was a kid I also went there with my dad to buy plastic models of cars, ships, and airplanes that we would assemble at home. Writing in the Standard-Times, Jack Spillane also picks up on the hard-to-classify quality of Benny's:
I'm not exactly sure what Benny's is. It isn’t exactly a hardware store but it has a lot of stuff that hardware stores do. It isn’t exactly a discount store but it has a lot of stuff that discount stores do.

Suffice to say it has a little of everything and it is cheap. Consistently inexpensive, not like the national chains that raise the prices just to lower them "on sale." Not like the big corporate boxes where they want all your personal data — name, rank and serial number — just so you can find out where the good buys are.

No, Benny’s seems genuinely inexpensive and intentionally full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily.

Need a good quality spigot for your hose? Benny’s has it. Need leaf bags because you’re half way through raking and out of them? Benny’s has them, and a quarter cheaper than everybody else.

How about a Keurig coffeemaker? Or patio furniture? Tennis balls? A corner table? Mulch for the garden? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The amazing thing is that Benny's has a wide variety of goods but the stores aren’t that big. Unlike a mega-store, you can easily see from one end to another. There are very rarely more than one or two cash registers (do they even call them that anymore?) running.
I think Spillane hits the nail on the head when he observes that Benny's was "full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily." Part of the appeal of Benny's was the sense in which it offered rare but important goods that weren't always easy to find elsewhere, particularly before the advent of the Internet. Where I grew up, Benny's also featured in a common rite of passage insofar as it was a place where many families went to buy bicycles for their children; I'm not sure that I ever rode a bicycle that came from Benny's, but I know a lot of other people who did.

Shopping at Benny's in recent years during visits home, I was also struck by the time-warped quality of the place: it always seemed to look exactly the way it had when I had visited as a child in the 1980s, with everything in the same place and the same signage, the same florescent lights, and the same floor tiles. The apparent timelessness of Benny's helped to evoke a sense of nostalgia that contributed to its appeal, and this nostalgia helps to explain why I'm sorry that I'll never have the opportunity to shop at Benny's again. The loss of Benny's also means the loss of a part of the distinctive identity of the region where I grew up, and that can only be a source of regret. AMDG.

Friday, September 08, 2017


In my last post, I promised to write more about my recent visit to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour in southwestern France. Today's Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems an apt occasion for a post on a Marian shrine so ancient that its origins are shrouded in mystery; the founding of Rocamadour is usually attributed to St. Amadour, a figure sometimes identified with the publican Zacchaeus mentioned in Luke’s Gospel but more likely a hermit who lived in the early Middle Ages. Tradition maintains that Roland of Brittany (later celebrated as a model of chivalry and valor in the eleventh-century Chanson de Roland) visited Rocamadour in 778, when it was apparently already a place of pilgrimage. Rocamadour became a major pilgrimage site in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with figures as varied as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Louis of France, and King Henry II of England all coming to pray before the enigmatic figure of the Vierge Noire (a statue that is also the subject of various legends, with varying accounts given of its age and origin). Just as it did centuries ago, this complex of chapels carved into the side of a cliff continues to captivate Christian pilgrims as well as more casual visitors.

The appeal of Rocamadour even to the irreligious is seen in Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, whose protagonist, a jaded atheist academic named François, makes an unlikely pilgrimage to the Black Virgin. Seeking a temporary respite from ennui and personal frustration as well as political turmoil in Paris, François visits the shrine on the advice of a friend who insists that "at Rocamadour you’ll see what a great civilization medieval Christendom really was." Sitting in the small chapel at the heart of the shrine, François muses on the figure of Our Lady of Rocamadour:
Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying.
As François comments later, the Black Virgin expressed something beyond human efforts to interpret the devotion that inspired countless pilgrims to visit the shrine: "What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier's manly courage; not even a child's desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal ... The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power..."

Considering the words of Submission's protagonist and reflecting on my own experience at Rocamadour, I found myself thinking of something Martin Mosebach once wrote about how the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila saw Catholicism not merely as "one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion." It's easy to regard Rocamadour as emblematic of the "collecting tank" character of Catholicism: a Christian shrine so ancient that its origins have been lost in the haze of history, a place centered on the veneration of "a strange statue" that "seem[s] extraterrestrial" and emits a mysterious "spiritual power." In contrast with a place like Lourdes, which bears witness to the unexpected manifestation of the divine before unsuspecting and even skeptical moderns, Rocamadour speaks to a natural and primordial faith. And yet, like Lourdes, Rocamadour is also a place touched by miraculous associations: reports of miracles that came about after prayers before the Black Virgin helped account for the shrine's popularity in the Middle Ages, and the many modern ex votos that can be seen at Rocamadour today are a reminder of favors more recently received.

Ancient and mysterious, Rocamadour is also a living place of pilgrimage. In contrast with the millions who visit Lourdes annually, pilgrims to Rocamadour can be counted in the tens of thousands (supplemented, I must note, by many more tourists drawn by the village's history and its medieval architecture). The pilgrims I saw at Rocamadour were mainly French, in contrast with the mix of nationalities one finds at Lourdes; the sense of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour as a national rather than universal figure remains palpable. Though the shrine is very old, it has a young heart: a striking aspect of the place is the presence of the bénévoles, French Catholic volunteers in their teens and twenties who spend the summer at Rocamadour welcoming pilgrims and helping to maintain the site. In this video, you can hear some bénévoles leading the daily rosary in the small chapel at the heart of the sanctuary. For me, it was inspiring to see enthusiastic young Catholics praying and working at one of the oldest shrines of an ostensibly secular and post-Christian nation. The blue polo shirts worn by the bénévoles bear this slogan: L’Espérance ferme comme le roc – "Hope solid as a rock." This is the message I took away from Rocamadour, and I suspect that the same message will lead me to return during my sojourn in France. AMDG.