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    Monday, March 27, 2023

    Remembrance of Things Past: 'Where's Waldo' turns into a historical Who's Who of Mystic

    Earlier this summer my wife took Eleanor and Naomi, our two youngest granddaughters, on a shopping excursion in downtown Mystic during the “Where’s Waldo” promotion. They visited over 20 stores, none of which existed when I was their age. They found Waldo in most of them. Later, Naomi also found Waldo under the bridge while riding on a paddleboard!

    Their adventure began at Bank Square Books, which is the only bookstore in Mystic. An earlier bookseller named The Other Bookstore was in the former Friendly Shop, in the building owned at that time by Jim Allyn. Kerr’s Men’s Shop, where I worked for many years, was also in that block, as was Claire’s, a ladies’ shop that was owned by Mr. Kerr’s wife. That block burned down several years ago, but has since been rebuilt.

    Even if those stores were still there today, it is unlikely that my elementary school grandchildren would have gone in them. However, they might have liked the dresses in the Junior Town Shop and they would have been delighted with all the kid-oriented merchandise in the five-and-dime store across the street.

    The final Waldo event was a party at Bank Square Books that my wife and granddaughters declared a great success. I know both girls came home with several Waldo articles including, not surprisingly, books!

    The bookstore occupies the building that once was the home of Mystic Sporting Goods, more commonly called Neff’s after the owner, Dick Neff. I spent quite a bit of time and more than a few dollars in that store right up until it closed. I even bought a pair of rollerblades when I was well into my 60s.

    Neff’s carried a wide range of sporting equipment, from baseball gloves and bats to tennis rackets; footballs, soccer balls, and playground balls; ice skates, both hockey and figure, and wooden hockey sticks and pucks, and, of course, electrician’s tape.

    Almost every boy in town came to Neff’s when he entered junior high because Dick sold the required gym suits. As I recall, the Fitch Junior gym suit was a grey shirt and red shorts. Girls also had a gym uniform, which was universally disliked. I have no idea where they bought them.

    When the Tydol station next door closed, Neff’s expanded and added bicycles, which were assembled and repaired upstairs over the main store. Tom LaFrance was one of Dick’s bike mechanics. Ice skates were also sharpened upstairs. The skates I bought at Neff’s when in high school lasted until just a couple of years ago.

    As a young Scout working on a Safety Merit Badge, I spent a couple of afternoons sitting by the big window in the front of the store overlooking West Main Street along with Walt Roderick, another member of Troop 34. Our task was to count the number of people who used the crosswalk in front of the store and compare it to the number of jaywalkers.

    A significant number of people crossing the street ignored the crosswalk, including the policeman on duty!

    Among other things, Neff’s sold fishing equipment, and it was there that I bought a cane pole, bobbers and hooks for smelt fishing. A favorite spot for hooking those small fish was at the little bridge where Bindloss Brook empties into the Mystic River. That also happened to be my junior high bus stop where every morning a half dozen of us caught the bus driven by Felice Nigrelli.

    While waiting for the bus one day, a fellow who was fishing asked me if I would hold his pole for a second while he lit a cigarette. I was happy to oblige and just as he handed me the pole and struck a match, the bobber dipped. I pulled up on the pole and there was a good-sized smelt. The man thanked me and said that since I caught the fish, it was mine. I declined the offer explaining that I was on my way to school and I didn’t think Felice would let me bring it on the bus!

    My father bought me a bike at Neff’s when I was a youngster and when my oldest daughter Maud was about 5 or 6 I wanted to get her a bike. On a beginning teacher’s salary I couldn’t afford a new one, but Alfred Goodman, Neff’s bike salesman, had a used bike for $50. He agreed to let me put it on layaway at $10 each biweekly payday.

    I made four payments and when I received my fifth paycheck went down to pay the last $10 and take the bike home to my daughter. When I reached the counter, I found that the last payment had already been made! To this day I have no idea who made it.

    My granddaughters are not going to be able to buy fishing poles or figure skates at Neff’s, but they buy books at Bank Square Books and so do I. I miss Neff’s, but the bookstore is a good addition to downtown Mystic.

    Robert F. Welt of Mystic is a retired Groton Public Schools teacher.

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