The former Universal Food Store on Pearl Street is certainly one of the more prominent architectural landmarks in Noank, its handsome bulk filling a key square of real estate on Pearl Street, in the heart of the village in Groton.
It’s been empty quite a while, but not anymore.
In aerial photographs, notes Stephen Jones, the building owner, the tall frame building sort of looks like Noank’s own Notre Dame.
The imposing building, complete with a theater and stage on its top floor, was built at the turn of the 20th century by the owners of the sprawling Robert Palmer & Son Shipbuilding and Marine Railway Co., whose some 400 employees once dominated life in the village, many living nearby.
The shipyard, well situated on deep water at the mouth of the Mystic River, was one of the most prominent on the East Coast in the 19th century, building many hundreds of ships.
The shipyard store evolved into an independent commercial building that for decades housed the village’s only grocery store, the Universal, until, struggling against supermarket competition, it went out of business in 2012, devastated by a six-day power outage after Superstorm Sandy that spoiled all the food in its walk-in cooler.
Some food market revivals — including a community cooperative — have come and gone since.
But Jones, a Noank writer and professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, has teamed up with a new tenant, Andrew Blacker, manager of his family’s nearby landmark Carson’s Store, for a new enterprise that will bring back grocery shopping to Pearl Street.
It also looks to put some of the Noank soul back into the prominent building.
Named Palmer’s Provisions and Pizza after the old shipyard, Blacker’s business will feature fruits and fresh produce, grocery necessities and bulk supplies like sugar and flour, for village residents, and sandwiches and prepared foods that might appeal to day workers in town, 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 shopping at the liquor store across the driveway.
“We think we know the Noank market very well,” said Blacker, whose Carson’s Store serves breakfast and lunches from a nostalgic arrangement of counter stools and diminutive booths so authentically curated from a bygone era of soda fountains they fit right it into a recent Hallmark movie.
The new Palmer’s Provisions is also full of Noank nostalgia, with lots of historical memorabilia, from charts and maps to a handsome ship model of Mystic Seaport Museum’s Emma C. Berry. The Noank-built Berry is correctly depicted in the model, Jones notes, as a schooner, not with the sloop rig the seaport is on the ship now.
Also displayed are fishing boats, a stuffed marlin and antique furniture and sea chests, even a couple of varnished wooden fighting chairs that look like they might have come off of Ernest Hemmingway’s boat Pilar.
There’s a framed copy of The Day from April 16, 1947, announcing the grand opening of the Universal Food Store in Noank “after months of careful planning and construction.”
The original lettering from the Universal sign are now in place above the pizza counter at Palmer’s.
Jones, who is 86, is about as genuine a Noank character as you can find — and there are quite a few of them. An accomplished author and storyteller with an eye toward the sea, he delivers his tales of old Noank with a sense of humor that is remarkably dry, given that he has lived so long on a salty peninsula surrounded by water.
Jones also owns other landmark waterfront real estate, including a traditional boat yard in west Mystic and Schooner Wharf in the heart of downtown Mystic.
He says, with a faint smile, that he bought a lot of it on the cheap. He said he paid less for Schooner Wharf than many of the boats that pass by it are worth. He bought the Noank house he still lives in 1968, for $7,500.
That was a time, he notes, when Noank was rough around the edges and Noankers still could make fun of how fancy and gentrified Stonington Borough had become.
Jones and a partner bought the Universal building at a time when Noankers were worried about talk of developers buying it and converting the big spaces to condominiums.
Jones is sort of the opposite of a developer, and with Blacker’s help is once again trying to turn back the clock on what amounts to Noank’s downtown.
“Steve is the only reason all this is here,” said Blacker. “It’s what makes Noank unique.”
Indeed, I’d call the opening of Palmer’s Provisions progress Noank style, at least one step back for every one forward.
This is the opinion of David Collins.