The Heart of the City

Appreciating a great neighborhood market

Joey Nappi (left) and Tony Nappi outside their store. photo/Rich Obrey

Joseph A. Nappi, Sr. was born in Portland in 1925, the son of Italian immigrants. He joined the Marines during World War II and attained the rank of corporal. Back in town after the war, he labored as a carpet-layer for years before deciding to try a new trade: running a corner store.

According to his oldest son, Tony Nappi, Joe Sr. got a job at Steve’s Market, on the corner of Forest and Cumberland avenues, in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood. “He used to work from six in the morning till one in the morning, have a little break in the afternoon,” Tony said. “’Cause that’s how he got to know the business, feel out the business, make your mistakes and learn from that.”

Joe Sr. eventually bought that store, with a little help from his friends. “His buddies got together, gave him some money, and he paid ’em back within six months,” Tony told me. “Back then it was a handshake. He didn’t go to the bank and go through all that.”

In the late ’60s, Tony worked part-time with his father at that store before Joe Sr. sold it and bought a similar shop on Ocean Avenue, where Back Cove BBQ and Pizza now stands. Three years later, another neighborhood market in Parkside went up for sale, and Joe Sr.’s buddies urged him to buy that one, too. “They said, ‘Joe, you can’t beat the location. You’re surrounded by people!’” Tony recalled.

So it was that in 1973, Joe Nappi, Sr. became the proprietor of Mellen Street Market, a neighborhood store in the middle of the most densely populated square mile in Maine.

Tony wasn’t planning to join his father behind the counter. He’d just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in criminal justice and intended to get a job as a prison guard, but he stopped a few steps short of the job interview. “I went up there and I walked up the stairs and I got into the hallway. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an institution, but it smells like Clorox. I said, Am I gonna do this my whole life? And I went right back down, come down here and put this [apron] on. That was 45 years ago.”

Tony’s younger brother, Joseph Jr. (Joey), soon joined them, “and the three of us worked together for all these years,” Tony said. (Joe Sr. passed away in 2012.) “It worked out great. We never argued, because my dad was always right!” He laughed. “So we didn’t argue with him. … He went into the Marine Corps at 17, so he’d been around the block. Eighth-grade education. He made it — just hard work, hard work, hard work, hard work. Put the hours in.”

Mellen Street Market opened at 6:30 a.m. and closed at 9 p.m. — not because there wasn’t money to be made after 9, but because Parkside was dangerous at night. “The neighborhood was tough,” Tony recalled. “You had your hookers, you had your drugs, you had your guns, you had your pimps. You had people comin’ up from Boston, pimpin’ out their girls here.”

Tony and I were standing in front of the store on a sunny November morning. “We used to have three phones out here,” he said. “You notice how this is brick? Well, it used to be wood. But they would come out here and they’d get mad and they’d bang [on the wall] and it would knock stuff off the shelf in there. So my father says, ‘I’m not puttin’ up with this.’ He called a guy he knows, we had this thing bricked up, and it worked out fine. It’s nice lookin’, it’s solid.

“That period was rough,” Tony said. “But we got through all that and now it’s come full circle. It’s a beautiful place to live and work down here, too. That’s the thing that we’re gonna miss — I know that I’m gonna miss, and Joey, too.”

After almost half a century of family ownership, the Nappis sold Mellen Street Market last month to a new group of locals who plan to maintain the neighborhood store’s character, but also modernize and expand it. The group includes local businessman Tim Ly, who grew up in the West End; Shawn Freeman, who worked for years at Joe’s Boathouse, in South Portland, and later developed the menu at Tomaso’s Canteen, in Portland’s East End; and Chantal Do, a consultant for Ly’s businesses who previously worked with her mother, Kim, at Kim’s Sandwich and Café, a shop on St. John Street that made the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich popular in Portland a decade ago.

From left: Shawn Freeman, Joey Nappi, Tony Nappi, Tim Ly, Chantal Do. photo/Rich Obrey

The bánh mìs are back (bigger and meatier, but still crazy cheap — well under $5), and the irresistible scent of pepperoni pizza still greets customers at the door, but Ly and Freeman are adding to the menu (look for Thai in the coming weeks) and plan to set up seating for a couple dozen patrons inside. There’s already more craft beer in the coolers, but the staples are staying — including a small housewares section (tape, batteries, bungee cords) — as is most of the crew that worked for the Nappis for years.

Freeman, the store’s manager, is dedicated to continuing the previous proprietors’ practice of operating the market as more than just a business — it’s a vital part of the community. He’s already set up two computers by the counter that neighborhood kids can use to play games or work on homework. There’s a resume template on one of the desktops, and Freeman hopes to establish an internship program for teens interested in the culinary arts.

On Monday, Nov. 12, the Nappis’ last day at Mellen Street, Tony graciously took time to talk to me about the market while a procession of friends and family and regulars came by to say goodbye.

“We try to treat customers as neighbors … and I think that helped us,” Tony said. A young woman walked by wearing a jacket and pajama bottoms. “People will come over with their pajamas on,” Tony said with a chuckle when she went inside. “That’s how comfortable” they feel at the market. “I’m not kiddin’ ya — full pajamas. Come in in the morning half asleep, get their coffee. … It’s like they’re going into another room. But they’re not going to another room, they’re coming down to the store. One guy over here, he used to call this his refrigerator!”

“When somebody walks in that door, you greet ’em with, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ Then you get a smile on your face,” Tony said. “If you’re a good listener, people open up to you. They will talk. Because some of ’em don’t have people to talk to at home. There’s a lot of people like that that go home, they have nobody.”

Just a few weeks ago, Tony had noticed a new neighbor, a woman in her 60s, walking from her apartment to her car, carrying a puppy in her arms. “About two hours later, she shows up here at the store, crying her eyes out,” Tony said. Her dog had died.

“To come into a place like this and cry your eyes out to a stranger — we had met her a few times — that tells me that she had trust in us, she liked us, there was something about us that she could let go in front of us,” said Tony. “She lives here alone. … So I said to my brother, ‘You know what, let’s just get a card.’ I didn’t even know her name. So I went and got her a card, and I put on the front of it: Neighbor. And on the inside, I said, ‘Sorry about your loss, neighbor. If you need anything …’”

The brothers left the card at the counter, and one of the clerks gave it to the woman when she stopped in a couple nights later. “She couldn’t believe it,” Tony said. “She thought that was the nicest thing that anybody’s ever [done]. It wasn’t a big deal, but to her it was a real big deal.”

Owners and workers of Mellen Street Market. photo/Rich Obrey

“You see so many people in here, you just know when they walk through that door what’s goin’ on,” said Tony. “Joey and I both — we can pick that stuff up. And you can also pick up the bad guys, the ones you’ve gotta watch, you know what I mean?”

“Have you had a lot of problems with crime,” I asked.

“About 40 years ago, we did,” Tony replied.” “We had a guy come in — you could only see his nose. I was out back filling the cooler, my brother was at the front. I turned around and looked up, and the guy was leaning over the counter, so I thought it might have been somebody he knew. So I came up. I said, ‘Joey, you all right?’ and the guy went like this.” Tony formed a gun with his fingers and pointed at my face. “He said to me, ‘Don’t move.’

“Now, you see how my finger is not movin’?” Tony asked me. “That made me feel good, because he was in control. … And I hate guns, I’m not a gun guy. He had already put the gun up to Joey’s [face] and cleaned out the drawer or whatever, so he backed up and left.

“The backstory to that is, this guy was from Massachusetts,” Tony continued. “He was staying with a family over here, in one of these buildings. I won’t give you their name, because the guy’s kind of a troubled soul. Anyway, they were planning robberies around the neighborhoods — not this neighborhood, but others — and the first thing the guy said to the guy that robbed us was, ‘Don’t hit them,’ meaning us, because we took care of the family — you know, if they were short a couple of bucks, but they always paid up. Where’s the first place he goes? Right here!

“They finally caught him — not for this place, but for some other places,” said Tony. “So Joey and I went down to the police station to look at the mug book. … We get to about the fifth page and I looked at Joey and I said, ‘We recognize almost all of these people. This is like a yearbook!’ We didn’t know their names, but we knew their faces.”

“I think a lot of people kind of gravitate down here,” said Tony. “And it’s also a safe house.” He said women have come into the store over the years expressing concern about suspicious people in the area. “We’ll go right out the door, see who’s out here, and if there’s somebody out there we walk ’em down wherever and make sure they get home,” Tony told me. “It’s that kind of friendliness. People send their kids to us, too, with a twenty-dollar bill. They get whatever it is they gotta get, we make sure they get the right change, make sure it’s in their pocket and go home.”

I asked Tony, who’s 68, what he’ll miss the most during his retirement. “Oh, oh, the people,” he said. “Oh, are you kiddin’ me? Oh, definitely the people.

“You’ve gotta have contact with people,” Tony added. “That’s what makes the world go ’round, I think. Personal touch is important, too. … To stand here and shake hands and say, ‘How are you doin’?’ Look ’em in the eye. There’s not enough of that around, I don’t think.”