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.


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