By Andrew Nemethy
Rushing to get to work, I swing into Paul’s Home Bake Shop and grab a couple of fresh glazed doughnuts, get a coffee to go from The Country Store, and then cross State Street to head to the Times Argus office across from the Cody block, unlocking the door and settling in at my desk at 8:05 a.m.
At 9 a.m., Barbara Averill, the legendary “den mom” for generations of paper delivery boys and girls, arrives with her usual upbeat greeting to begin taking classified ads from walk-in customers. After deadline, about 11 a.m., I head to Somers Hardware for a couple of clamps for a leaky muffler pipe and it’s back to work.
With an evening meeting to cover, I head home about 4 p.m., stopping in at Capital Market next to my office to pick up a couple of pork chops from Ray Alvarez, who weighs them on a scale and wraps them in butcher paper. A quick stop at the Grand Union for a six-pack of Molson, and another summer day has wrapped up for me in the capital city.
In case you haven’t guessed, this version of Montpelier is a fossil frozen in my mental amber — circa 1978 — when I worked out of the Times Argus office on Main Street, just up from the Lobster Pot restaurant, which later became the Main Street Grill and Bar run by the New England Culinary Institute (NECI). Except for the Grand Union (now Shaw’s), spots like these restaurants and my office that once helped define downtown have since vanished.
Cities are always changing and evolving, of course, in significant or less notable ways that over years transform the downtown landscape. A trip down my dusty memory lane leads to many Montpelier landmarks whose once vital existence has gone as thoroughly as the city crosswalk markings do by March every year.
For those under 30 or recently arrived, these downtowns of the past are invisible, hidden eras layered like an archeological site in the brains of ancient denizens. The era of Horn of the Moon cafe. The NECI era. The era when Aubuchon’s and Somer’s hardware stores co-existed side by side. The era when the Brown Derby Supper Club and Little Valley House on Route 12 south of Montpelier were boisterous hot spots for live music. Or when a good spot for a romantic tryst was the Boxcar Lounge, in a rail car attached to the Stockyard steakhouse, where VSECU now stands. Or for journalists and politicos, hanging out at the Thrush Tavern (now Pho Capital).
As a rural denizen, Montpelier has been my “hometown” city for close to 40 years. That means many storefronts have dual, even triple existences in my brain. The famed Three Penny Taproom was Miller Sports. The Coffee Corner became a pizza joint and now Bohemian Bakery. Great American Salvage Co., whose rambling interior filled many a house or business with unique architectural elements, now fills stomachs with Sarducci’s Italian delights.
I once filled peanut butter tubs as a volunteer member of Hunger Mountain Co-op in the building housing the Berlin Veterinary Clinic, as well as in an extinct red brick tenement on Barre Street.
Such memories reflect more than history: They mark seminal changes and trends, inflection points in the capital’s history. In the 1970s, a decent artisanal anything was as mythical as Champ, and the culinary transformations of Vermont begun by NECI were a glimmer in co-founder Fran Voigt’s eye. NECI’s La Brioche Cafe was a revelation and pastry revolution in one. Its prominent home in City Center was possible only because a massive winter fire in the early 1980s destroyed the wooden Cody Block. We’ve since lost NECI, but Bohemian Bakery, Elm Street’s Birchgrove Bakery, Capitol Grounds, and Rabble-Rouser reflect a thriving cafe culture totally absent in the 1970s.
The most dissonant and gobsmacking transformation though, is down on Barre Street, where Caledonia Spirits now provides a spirited cocktail and socializing gathering spot. Longtime denizens will recall instead the memorable array of semi-junked parts vehicles immobile in the weeds used by mechanical wizard Paul Ibey, whose garage extended the life of many a Toyota. This included my little red 1980s truck, until the sad and fateful day Ibey declared the rusted frame meant it had turned into a “motorized wheelbarrow“ unfit for the road.
That a garage, in a low hollow close to the Winooski River, could do oil undercoating all fall in a repair bay wrapped in plastic sheeting (back when that was indispensable to vehicular longevity) is one era that, looking back, I don’t miss.
Andrew Nemethy is a longtime journalist and editor from Calais who still misses breakfasts at Horn of the Moon Cafe.