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Syrian Grocery in South End has changed with the times

Posted by Roy Greene  January 3, 2013 12:23 PM

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(Photo by Mai Ngoc Chau)

As clerk Monty Mansour looks on, Paul Grabianowski and his wife, of Bay Village, consider a wooden cookie mold. They said they shop at the store a couple times a month.

Joseph Restuccia first entered the Syrian Grocery on Shawmut Avenue about 30 years ago when he was looking for a good place near his house to buy Middle Eastern food.

Walking through wooden shelves in the one-room store, Restuccia picked out his favorite hummus, a thick spread made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and garlic, dates from Egypt and olives from Syria.

“I had learned to love Middle Eastern food in high school as one of my best friends was Armenian and I often ate at his house,” Restuccia says.

The South Ender, now 65, still shops the Syrian Grocery every other week. But these days his purchase includes not only Middle Eastern gourmet foods but also Turkish coffee; Greek Feta cheese; crackers, jellies and jams from Italy, France, and America, and all kinds of imported oils.

Once a must-stop market for Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the South End, Restuccia’s favorite grocery has changed with the times and adapted to the neighborhood’s gentrification.

Where from the 1940s to 1980s it sold all kinds of Mediterranean essentials, from Syrian apricot paste to rare Moroccan argan oil, today the grocery, owned by the three remaining sons of a Lebanese immigrant, Maurice Mansour, has added delicacies from around the globe.

"The store carried mainly Mediterranean food,” says Restuccia whose grandparents came from Italy. “But it now carries food from all over the world so there is a wider variety of choose from."

A visit to the oil aisle near the entrance makes the point. Customers can buy a 0.75-liter bottle of Saifan olive oil from Lebanon for $14.99 and a 3-liter bottle of Alomda olive oil from Tunisia for $29.99. But they also can buy avocado oil from Chile, walnut oil from the United Kingdom, peanut oil from Hong Kong and more.

“We’re a global store,” says Joseph, Maurice Mansour’s youngest son, with his back to a five-tiered, turquoise painted wooden shelf displaying dozens of spice jars, which read Arabic allspice, Middle East ground sumack, Turkish urfa pepper, Chinese five spice, Vietnamese cinnamon.

Joseph, 51 and his three older brothers, George, Monty and Ramon, all were born in Boston. They are the fruits of a love at first sight between a Lebanese bullet maker and a Boston girl who met him when she visited her family in Lebanon in 1951.

When the-24-year-old Maurice Mansour arrived in Boston to start a family one year later, he often visited the Syrian Grocery Importing Co., the only place that offered authentic food staples from his place of origin to what was then a thriving South End Middle Eastern community.

“This store was opened in 1940 by two Syrian immigrants,” says Joseph. After one died, the other bought his partner’s share and ran the store on his own. But in 1967 his only son was killed three weeks into a tour during the Vietnam War, and the owner put the Syrian Grocery up for sale.

Joseph says his father, who was working for a Holster-Cabot machine shop, decided to buy the store “because it reminded him of his adolescence and connected him with his people from the Middle East.”

“It was on Columbus Day,” says Monty, who was 12 then. Maurice retained the store’s name and ran it with the assistance of his wife Margaret, a Lebanese employee, and his two oldest sons, George and Monty, after they finished their school day.

“This store was my father’s life,” says Joseph, who with his older brother Ramon started working at the store in 1978 while they were in high school.

Many tragedies befell the Mansours over the years. A car without light crashed into Maurice as he drove home in 1968. He fell sick on a trip to Lebanon in 1972 and was bedridden for six months. His first son, George, died of cancer in 1987. And his wife died a decade later.

But the store continued.

“My father wanted us to keep the store going because he wanted to see his family and his business together,” Joseph says.

One year after his wife’s death, Maurice, then 70, began turning the store’s management over to his three remaining sons. He died in 2003.

Today the Syrian Grocery is still in the 1870 four-level brick building near the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Bradford Street, which the Mansours have owned since 1975.

It is a few storefronts away from a once-flourishing Syrian restaurant, circa 1960s, now a storage building with a huge sign of Sahara Syrian Restaurant still attached.

And it is a short walk from the Berkeley Community Garden, once a demolished residential block, which resisted the Urban Renewal push that swept through Boston in the 1950s and 1960s.

The neighborhood has changed. And so has the Syrian Grocery.

“Since the 1990s, the neighborhood has changed with less Arabic people,” says Joseph. “New, different people moved in. We have added new stuff, different types of food to accommodate new customers.”

Joseph like Ramon now lives in Newton while Monty remains in an apartment above the store.

Today the store’s jam-packed wooden shelves display some 10,000 gourmet items imported from not only the Middle East and Africa but also Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australia.

Stepping into the store with her daughter, Cristin Foley walks to the oil shelf, picking a bottle of L’esttornell Extra Virgin Olive Oil made in Spain.

“It has the best selection of oils,” Foley says, walking a few steps to the double fridge where she grasps a box of Angel Hair cheese inside. Turning to the checkout counter, she takes a bag of Syrian bread from a hand-woven basket and puts all in front of Monty.

“It has a great variety of imported stuff and it’s not as expensive as the other stores,” says Foley, who has shopped at the Syrian Grocery several times a month since moving to the South End ten years ago.

Carrying two store-packed bags of Turkish dried figs and apricots in his hands, David Flaschenriem echoes her comment. “It’s an unusual store with different products from all over the world,” says Flaschenriem, who moved from Beacon Hill to the neighborhood 14 years ago and has frequented the store for Italian pesto and varieties of olives and grains.

Ramon attributes the store’s competitive pricing to its brother-brother partnership. “We don’t have to charge extra fees because we don’t have a lot of overhead. All family runs it,” says Ramon, who is in charge of ordering stocks from relatives in the Middle East and worldwide brokers.

“We still return to the Middle East to get stuff but not as frequently as we did,” Joseph adds. “Formerly every year but now because of the fighting, we go every two or three years.”

Its inventory and clientele have change so have the hours. In 1999, the store began serving Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 12 to 7 p.m.

“We spend more time later than early because most of people like to come in after work,” says Joseph. The store is open on Sundays for the holidays.

Still, one thing remains unchanged – the store’s look. It is adorned with colorful cook books from North Africa, Syria and Lebanon on shelves near the front and an assortment of items from the region throughout. Three are Moroccan ceramic tagines, Syrian Darbuka drums, Moroccan lanterns, Turkish tobacco water pipes and Moroccan brass trays, to name a few.

“The store still looks classic,” says long-term client Restuccia, who often stops by from teaching at the Boston University. “It reminds me of the stores I have seen in Jerusalem, Israel and Sicily.”

Still, the biggest draw of the store, which has no website or Facebook page, is its owners.

“I have shopped here also because of these guys,” says a professor from Massachusetts College of Art, who asked to be identified only as Duncan. “They listen to customers and order the things that their customers like.” The Bay Village resident, who bought two wooden cookie molds as holiday gifts for his relative, said he often shops for specialties from Australia, his home country.

For Kim Keley, an artist who has come every week for 23 years, this store is a place to learn of the neighborhood’s changes.

“We always talk about the neighborhood, foods, restaurants and other businesses that have come and gone, sometimes crimes and security,” says Keley, who moved to the South End from the Chinatown in 1989. “We make each other aware of what’s happening in the neighborhood.”

So does Restuccia, who says he often chats to Monty and his brothers about the South End and the Middle East.

“It’s a historical legacy,” he says.

The 57-year-old Monty, thin and bushy-bearded, is something of a neighborhood’s living dictionary. Want to know why the Sahara Syrian Restaurant was closed or how the Berkeley Community Garden was created? Just come over the 270 Shawmut Ave. store and meet the man of few words behind the checkout who often overlaps his hands in front of his chest like a genie.

“We love to work here because we can meet people from all over the world and connect to the community,” Joseph says.

Including the Boston’s mayor.

On a wooden shelf overlooking the checkout is an old photograph encased in a small wooden frame. In black and white, Mayor Thomas Menino shakes hands with Ramon in the store. Below the image are two hand-written sentences: “Ray. Thanks for your help with the tour of the South End. You have a great grocery store. Warm regards, Thomas Menino.

This story was produced through a partnership between the Globe and Emerson College.

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