Milton has been a busy community for a long time, with businesses of many kinds coming and going. Used to be a couple of commercial areas – one at the top of Main Street, near the railroad; one at the bottom, near the bridge. The railroad was a boon, made it much easier to get all kinds of things. That was not necessarily good for the tinsmith, say, or the dressmaker. When the world out there was for sale, the world in here had to pull in its wings.
There is a rhythm to commerce as well as to life, and though we miss and mourn, it would be kind of useless to try to stop it. I recall the fabric store in the building closest the river down at the bridge. It was bright and friendly, a place where I’d stop after work if I was in the mood to have a creative weekend. But it was, in its time, a new place, taking over from another business. A friend remembers her mother keeping store down by the bridge – she brought my friend, a preschooler at the time, to work with her. The child had her naps on a big stack of paper bags under the counter.
I liked Al’s Upstairs, up over Branch’s Grocery. Actually, the whole building was kind of a one-stop shopping and service area. You could get groceries and gas and gewgaws. You could trade in fresh caught perch there. There was a little space closed off at one corner where at one time you could pick up your mail, and later on buy liquor. The bus stop for Montreal was near. And then there was Al’s.
I became most connected with Al’s when I came to high school. Back in the day, we had open campus. We didn’t need to be in the school building before classes started, and we had a long lunch break so we could go out and get fresh air. Or sneak a smoke if that was your thing. Furthermore, every spring they admonished us to keep off the grass so it would be “nice for graduation.” That meant we spent about as much time on the streets as your average city-dwelling kid. So we’d walk around the block. There was a snack bar down on River street where, if we had any pocket money, we could get a batch of fries to share. Or we’d go to Al’s.
Al had school supplies – at least a selection of paper pads, pens, pencils, crayons. There was no worry he was going to put a dent in the stationer’s business in Burlington, but it was extremely important to those of us who needed to have something now, or were not going to convince a parent that spending the time and gas to go downtown for a pencil was a good idea. We would look around at shoes and coats and shotgun shells, but we bought school things.
My favorite acquisition was a set of little ballpoint pens, with various colors of ink. I suppose that there were a few teachers who got tired of my offerings in turquoise, or magenta, or purple, but no one actually complained. The odd part about the pens, looking back, is that they were made to look like cigarettes, with colored caps where a filter would be. Smoking among youth (or anyone else) was not a concern back then, and no one assumed that I would become a nicotine fiend from using little pens.
The shortage of parking places down street, plus the moving of the high school, eventually took it’s toll. When Branch’s was demolished, my ex was given Al’s Upstairs neon sign that had pointed the way. He wanted to donate it to the historical society. No, he was told, that’s not history. Well, be careful – everything you see today when you go to the shops with the copious parking will be your history soon enough.