The first thing I bought at Benny’s was a sled. Not the fancy red ones in the storybooks, but a plastic sled that was as big as a Buick. It was blue. I took the boys to a hill in East Providence and let go. They barely dodged a grove of hemlocks. I gave the sled away, but now I wish I had kept it. It’d be nice to have a memento from one of my cherished hangouts.
I felt lousy when I heard the news that Benny’s would be closing all 31 of its stores by the end of the year. My first thought was selfish: Now I’d have to go to a cavernous, warehouse-style big box store with aisles a mile long, merchandise coated with dust and employees who would rather be doing something else, like watching a ballgame or fishing. My second thought was more complicated.
I never set foot in a Benny’s until I had a house in need of repair and kids (two boys) and then I went there all the time. I liked the one on Branch Avenue in Providence, across from the North Burial Ground. I also shopped at the Benny’s near the East Providence line, down the street from car dealerships and a McDonald’s, but it wasn’t as fun as the one on Branch. That Benny’s was filled with managers and workers who laughed and talked to you like you were their favorite cousin. Customers of all ages and from all walks of life shopped there, and the lack of pretense among them was refreshing. The aisles were narrow, and the merchandise was always within reach. No one had to tiptoe to get, say, a package of light bulbs. “Where’s the laundry detergent?” a woman asked me once. “Around the corner,” I said, standing by a shelf of cleaning supplies. “By the plastic bins and trash cans.” That would never happen at Home Depot.
I bought many things at Benny’s. I bought mops, Pine Sol, Comet, Murphy Oil Soap, Windex, Brillo pads, Clorox wipes and Easy Off. I bought paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, red plastic cups, a red-checkered tablecloth and a door mat. I bought a whistling tea kettle and a frying pan. I bought brown towels, a bathroom scale, hooks for a shower curtain and a shower caddy that holds three bottles of shampoo. I bought Legos, Scrabble, Settlers of Catan, Uncle Wiggily, Rescue Heroes, baseballs, bats, baseball pants, batting gloves and a coach’s whistle. I bought salty peanuts, Swedish Fish and a box of chocolate- covered cherries. I bought air conditioners, a bike pump and two tricycle bells decorated with horses. I bought a flat-head screwdriver and a sweatshirt. I bought a package of Bazooka Joe bubble gum. Sometimes, I didn’t buy anything. I just liked wandering around the place: America at its best.
My last visit was depressing. Many of the shelves were bare, or on their way to emptiness. What remained was in some disarray, victims of overzealous shoppers looking for bargains. I didn’t recognize some of the employees, which made me wonder if management had dismissed workers early. I wondered where they might land. Home Depot? Lowe’s? Rocky’s, which I guess wouldn’t be so bad. Not the same energy, but at least the stores are small.
I didn’t buy much during that visit. A roll of aluminum foil, a football and two pairs of white crew socks. The man in front of me expressed his condolences to the cashier, but I didn’t, and I regret that. “Too bad you’re closing,” I should’ve said. “I hope everyone finds work.” I did keep a souvenir: my shopping bag declaring in red letters, “Benny’s – Your Favorite Store.” So true. So long.