The North End of Boston is a charming, anachronistic place. There, in the heart of a very modern, high-tech city is an enclave of old-style Boston filled with coffee shops and newsstands and restaurants and people who have lived there all their lives. With some of those people you could become, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances—though they would nonetheless, having seen so many of us come and go, regard you as an outsider.
I lived in the North End a few years after college, walking to work every morning along Atlantic Avenue. In the evenings I’d take a different way back home through the winding, narrow paths of the Italian section, past Paul Revere’s house (which, bizarrely, I never actually toured) and the numerous churches still standing on cobblestone streets.
Especially in those early days of my first job I would work late most of the time and then stop to pick up dinner from one shop or another along the way home. Thinking back on those evening walks through the neighborhood there is one memorable, and in retrospect odd constant: the smell of fresh bread. In fact the scent of baking loaves was so pervasive that I can recall it even now, more than 17 years later. It’s funny how you can remember a scent, which science tell us is the most memorable of our senses – and, perhaps even stranger, is that baked goods are especially memorable. Perhaps that’s because the literal “nerve center” of our olfactory apparatus is embedded within the brain’s limbic system and amygdala, where emotions are born and emotional memories stored.
Anyhow, on cold, winter nights when the air is especially crisp and dry, the smell of baking bread was all the more pronounced, and all the more pleasant.
The North End bakeries worked through the night and in the morning, on the way back to work, I would pass one darkened, still-closed restaurant after another with the fresh bread delivered and waiting in huge brown bags on their stoops.
I was one of those post-university tenants that kept North End rents at reasonable levels, I suppose, not that I recall them being particularly cheap. After I left, though, as the real estate market changed, young urban professionals, no longer able to afford a home of their own, flocked to the North End and were willing to pay more than the college students and recent grads that came before them. Rents skyrocketed and the North End took on a new trendiness. Generally, you’d think all that might be good, but it’s not good for everyone.
This week Boschetto’s Bakery will close. They were one of the bakers to have filled the neighborhood night air since 1895. At their highpoint they baked 1,500 loaves each night. Some North End denizens are bemoaning the loss of their old friend and musing whether people eat bread “like they used to.” But the truth is more commercial than that. The owner of the space Boschetto’s occupies (and which houses their enormous brick oven) has quadrupled their rent and so the bakery has decided it’s time stop their retail business.
Boschetto’s harkens to a time when shopping meant visits to multiple speciality stores. Even in the 1990s, when I lived there, being one who enjoys cooking, I’d spend part of my Saturday stopping at the butcher, the fish monger, the cheese store, the wine shop, and the bakery. Each had unique value. Each could point me to something new or interesting to try. There was a surprisingly large store that sold nothing but coffee and spices. There was even a man in a tiny shop, down a few steps from the street, that sold nothing but vegetables. Being fairly sure he was drunk most of the time, I can’t say he ever really pointed me to anything. But his products were excellent.
The butcher was always an interesting experience. His shop was consistently bare. Gleaming white tile beneath glass and wooden cases that were obviously meant to showcase his products. All of them were empty. The routine was always the same. I told him what I wanted. He asked me what I was going to do with it, which I admit was off-putting my first few times. I would tell him, he’d think for a second and then go to the back and come out with something perfect. He wanted to match the right product for his customer’s need.
All this shop hopping is fine when you have the time. But for any of us, the convenience of megamarts (or Home Depot, Best Buy, or any mall) will often win the day. Life is busy and time is precious. The butcher, the baker, and candlestick maker can’t likely make a living on our occasional dalliance with quality and service. But without them, how do we become more than just consumers of packaged goods? How do we explain the the difference between farm-fresh and processed? Who will we go to with the knowledge to make a soufflé or to find just the right cheese to pair with just the right wine? Are these experiences that are to be limited to the occasional restaurant visit?
Losing small shops like Boschetto’s is a consequence of progress, and I’m all in favor of progress. But I can’t help feeling that it’s also a loss—and not just a nostalgic one fueled by memories of sweet smells.