That old coastal postal road along the way to the Towers in Narragansett: it sums up the history of South County, as it is commonly called in the towns with their wee shopping centers.
Once in a while during antique auto shows, I spot a very early motorized fire engine, an elegant miniature marvel! Or a fine roadster proudly maintained by its current chauffeur, who drives the sporty masterpiece of yore.
Well, the other day I came upon an unexpected adventure after opening up our summertime retreat in “Middlebridge,” our section of Narragansett. We took a jonnycake break from our tasks of getting rid of the signs of mice indoors and the weeds choking the garden treasures outdoors.
Next door to the restaurant/cafe, there’s a parking lot with a few rocking chairs and toy chests in front. Indoors reigned ... The Twilight Zone!
A sturdy chap named Richard greeted me and encouraged my tour of the inner sanctum. The entire saga of this glorious seaside region is contained among the neat clutter of this treasure chest of a store, freshly opened the day before we found it.
Maps of Narragansett Bay, newspapers dating to the late 19th century, carefully wrapped and preserved, some framed. Ancient volumes of forgotten lore, some damaged, but some in perfect condition.
Large, locally crafted sculptures of native birds, and tiny models of long-ago playthings. Every item personally chosen, hoarded respectfully and displayed proudly.
“Gee, I should leave the complete contents of my loft, studio, garage, cellar, closets, attic to you to care for, honor, sell or just enjoy. How did you decide to open your business/museum here, of all places?” I said.
Richard’s answer astounded me. It turns out he had come full circle.
“I graduated from the University of Rhode Island, which explains the logo on that black rocking chair in front on the sidewalk. I was an athlete, a runner, and was sent with a team to Israel,” he said. “The kibbutz I stayed at wanted me to make aliyah, but I wanted to see more of the world. And somehow I won a prize that made it possible to fly from one airport to another before getting back to campus here. I sort of ran around the globe like a giant track!”
I’m not usually nosy with strangers, but I made like a real reporter and asked questions with focus.
“Do you have children?”
“Yeah, three, and my daughter is the manager right next door,” Richard said.
Was it at Meldgie’s brunch place, where we had just had biscuits and mugs of java, or at Brickley’s, where I chose a kiddie-box of blueberry ice cream? I don’t know which was the correct “next door,” but I went on with my curiosity quest for more information about this great collector, like a magical figure of folklore.
“Any grandchildren yet?”
“Yes, and they’re even easier to love than your kids!” he declared with enthusiasm.
Now, I am of a generation that doesn’t like to announce a group identity – it somehow seemed un-American to declare or display your religion. (I’ve changed my mind about this, but it has become a habit, maybe with a mix of fear along with courtesy.)
But I was blunt with Richard. I made so bold as to ask the classic question, “Are you Jewish?” I asked it with almost a Yiddish rhythm, as in “Bis du ein Yid?”
Richard responded with a nod and a smile.
It seemed to me that Richard had made this place across from the ferry to Newport and Touro Synagogue his own Israel, and Rhode Island his aliyah to freedom, to “run” a store – the American dream – to transform URI into an alma mater spiritually as well as intellectually.
“By the way, my dad, who is 93, has a place a few blocks from here ... he’s doing pretty good, and it’s not New York, but Providence and Narragansett are perfect places for us and for all these treats gathered here from the past and into the future,” Richard said.
As I proceeded to the door, I pledged to return when we finally settle down for the summer months, and he followed my footsteps and handed me the front page of an old Narragansett Times as a gift and a reminder to keep that promise to come back to narragantiques collectionZ … and urge others to pop in.
MIKE FINK (email@example.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.