Over The Years, Chatham Has Held On To Community Grocery Stores

By: Debra Lawless

The Atwood Store on Main Street, across from the Wayside Inn. The building still exists; it was surrounded by a new brick structure in the early 1900s and today houses several businesses, including Bluefins. CHATHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO

Unlike many towns on Cape Cod, Chatham has always been home to one or more small grocery stores and has never lost its customers to the big chains.

“Small local grocery stores are very important,” says Scott MacDonald, one of the owners of Chatham Village Market. “It’s necessary for the town. It’s not just a convenience. It works with those who need a home delivery.”

Local home deliveries are just $5 on orders over $25. As well as a full line of groceries, the store stocks antibiotic-free meat, organic vegetables and many local products such as coffee, jam and honey, MacDonald says.

The store opened in its current location in May 2011. Beginning in July 2003, it was located in the old building (now demolished) previously inhabited by the A&P at 12 Queen Anne Rd. When the A&P vacated its 10-year unexpired lease, employees stepped forward and founded the Chatham Village Market, ensuring that the town never lost its grocery store. (The store was closed for about a month during the transition.)

A visit to the archives of the Chatham Historical Society reveals that Chatham has had grocery stores since its early days. While evidence is sparse for the decades after the town’s founding in 1712, the Chatham Monitor in April 1893 cites various townspeople such as Richard Sears, Esq., who opened a store in the early 1800s and a “stranger” to town, William H. Eaton, who set up a dry goods store with groceries in 1840.

The history of Atwood’s Store, which opened in 1849 in the age of the stage coach, is well-documented. Twenty-four-year-old Levi Atwood opened his store in a barn on Stage Harbor Road by Oyster Pond. The store sold molasses and grain. The Monitor offers a picture of those early stores. A scale would have hung on a beam in the center of the room from a wire with weights at one end. Products were scooped into the scale and weighed. Many items, such as whale oil, flour and pickles were sold from barrels, and it was possible to buy half a barrel of pickles. Lard was sold in pails.

Atwood’s always had plenty of competition. In 1860 Nabby Taylor opened “Aunt Nabby’s Store” in West Chatham after her husband died at sea. After her death, Davis L. Nickerson ran the store for several years before closing it in the 1890s. In 1884 Kimble R. Howes opened a bakery, in 1885 Emma J. Howes opened a grocery store in the building that is now Chatham Cookware at 524 Main St., and in July 1888 W.F. Harding began selling groceries and general provisions from a Main Street location west of the Wayside Inn. Even the town doctor, Benjamin Gifford, began selling food—“an appetizing display of pies, puddings and pan-cakes” took the place of “pills, powders and plasters” in the window of his practice.

After Levi Atwood’s death in 1898, his son L. Sidney Atwood took over and moved the enlarged store to Main Street. Levi’s grandson G. Tyler Atwood and his wife Gladys took over the store in the brick building across from today’s Wayside Inn in 1940. G. Tyler worked in the store “ever since he was old enough to look over the counter,” Gladys said when the couple retired in 1965. Gladys herself was well-known for sharing often-risqué jokes with customers. Employees made deliveries from three cars and two bicycles. In 1965, after 116 years in one family, Atwood’s was sold to I. Thomas Buckley who once clerked in the store. The following year Buckley merged Atwood’s with Bearse’s, which had originally opened around1856. Customers requested that Buckley “retain a country atmosphere” in the 1,400-square-foot store now called Bearse’s and still across from the Wayside Inn. In 1974 the store was sold to the owners of the Dennis Public Market which then ran the Chatham Public Market in a portion of Bearse’s former store.

The Epicure, established in 1927 at 534 Main St., sold S.S. Pierce groceries and liquor (and also may have received the town’s first package store liquor license in 1933). An A&P occupied the building where the Ben Franklin is now, although the building previously held a First National. In 1936 the First National opened in the brick building now occupied by the Yellow Umbrella Books and Sundance Clothing. Ben Nickerson worked at the First National in 1946, first as a clerk in produce and later in meat. He would weigh out produce, bag it, and write a price on it.

There was no self-service,” he recalls. “You had to ask for everything.”

As the 20th century waned, things changed. The trend was for bigger supermarkets. Of Chatham’s grocery stores, the A&P lasted the longest at 12 Queen Anne Rd. The Organic Market at 1218 Main St., previously known as Chatham Natural Foods Market, opened in 1978 and is still running.

In 1970 Stop & Shop built a 24,000-square-foot building in West Chatham on the corner of Main Street and George Ryder Road. That store became the town’s second A&P in 1982 and continued for 20 years, until 2002. Competition from the Super Stop & Shop built on Route 137 in East Harwich in 1992 helped bring about its demise.