The former Universal Food Store on Pearl Street is certainly one of Noank’s most significant architectural landmarks, its handsome massing filling a key real estate spot on Pearl Street in the heart of Groton village.
It was empty for a while, but not anymore.
In aerial photographs, notes Stephen Jones, the building’s owner, the tall-framed building somewhat resembles Our Lady of Noank.
The imposing building, complete with a theater and stage on the top floor, was built at the turn of the 20th century by owners of the sprawling Robert Palmer & Son Shipbuilding and Marine Railway Co., whose approximately 400 employees towered formerly life in the village, many living nearby.
The shipyard, conveniently located in deep water at the mouth of the Mystic River, was one of the largest on the East Coast in the 19th century, building several hundred ships.
The shipyard store became a freestanding commercial building that for decades housed the village’s only grocery store, Universal, until, battling competition from supermarkets, it went bankrupt in 2012, devastated by a blackout. of power six days after Superstorm Sandy spoiled all the food in his cold room.
Some food market revivals — including a community co-op — have come and gone since.
But Jones, a Noank writer and professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, has teamed up with new tenant Andrew Blacker, manager of his family’s nearby Carson’s Store, for a new venture that will bring groceries back to Pearl. Street.
He also seeks to put some of Noank’s soul back into the prominent building.
Named Palmer’s Provisions and Pizza after the old shipyard, Blacker’s business will offer fresh fruit and produce, groceries and bulk supplies like sugar and flour, for village residents, as well as sandwiches and prepared meals that might appeal to city day workers, summer residents and the many boaters at local marinas.
There will also be a pizza oven and restaurant seating with a bring your own beer policy that will encourage purchases at the liquor store across the aisle.
“We think we know Noank Market very well,” said Blacker, whose Carson’s Store serves breakfast and lunches from a nostalgic arrangement of counter stools and tiny booths so authentically kept from from a bygone era of soda fountains that they fit perfectly into a recent Hallmark. film.
The new Palmer’s Provisions is also full of Noank nostalgia, with plenty of historical memorabilia, from maps and charts to a beautiful Emma C. Berry ship model from the Mystic Seaport Museum. The Noank-built Berry is correctly depicted in the model, Jones notes, as a schooner, and not with the sloop rig the Seaport now has on the ship.
Also on display are fishing boats, a stuffed marlin, antique furniture and sea chests, even a few varnished wooden fighting chairs that look like they came from Ernest Hemmingway’s fishing boat Pilar.
There is a framed print of The Day from April 16, 1947, announcing the official opening of the Universal Food Store in Noank “after months of painstaking planning and construction”.
The original Universal sign letters are now in place above the pizza counter at Palmer’s.
Jones, who is 86, is about as authentic a Noank character as you can find – and there are several. An accomplished author and storyteller, with his eye on the sea, he delivers his tales of old Noank with a remarkably dry humor, given that he lived so long on a salty peninsula surrounded by water.
Jones also owns other landmark waterfront properties, including a traditional shipyard west of Mystic and Schooner Wharf in the heart of downtown Mystic.
He says, with a slight smile, that he bought a lot of them cheaply. He said he had paid less for Schooner Wharf than the value of many boats that pass there. He bought the Noank house he still lives in in 1968, for $7,500.
It was a time, he notes, when Noank was rough around the edges and Noankers could still scoff at the whimsy and gentrification of Stonington Borough.
Jones and a partner bought the Universal building at a time when the Noankers feared talk of developers buying it and converting the large spaces into condominiums.
Jones is sort of the opposite of a developer, and with Blacker’s help, he tries to backtrack again to what amounts to downtown Noank.
“Steve is the only reason this is all here,” Blacker said. “That’s what makes Noank unique.”
Indeed, I would call the opening of Palmer’s Provisions a Noank-style progress, at least one step back for every one forward.
This is the opinion of David Collins.