Welcome to the first in a series of Around Town pieces focusing on places in Exeter. Watch for a new one every Thursday!
Headed out of downtown Exeter, out toward some of the subdivisions, O’Leary’s Market is a small store on the north side of the street. The single-story brick building has a wooden addition out back where F.X. O’Leary expanded the store once the state changed the laws to allow beer and wine sales by businesses other than package stores, but otherwise, it’s the same shop his grandfather started when he emigrated to Exeter.
Walk inside, and F.X. will be there behind the counter, slicing deli meat or ringing customers up. Sometimes his grandson Tim is in there after school, or wife Mary will come by to spell him for a bit to conduct some business outside the shop. His daughters all moved away over the years, following husbands or jobs to new places. His youngest, Joe, never wanted to work in the store, to be the fourth O’Leary running the market, and F.X. doesn’t want to count on Tim taking over either. It takes a people personality to enjoy interacting with customers all day, and Tim’s a fair bit quieter than that, takes after his mom. Granddaughter Kara is just 13, and F.X. isn’t sure he has another eight to 10 years of running the market left in him, even if she does turn out to be interested in taking over.
A few years ago, he hired Katie Reilly to work some weekend shifts and to keep the shop open until nine in the evenings. He couldn’t pay her much, but the hours let her pay her own way at Exeter State, and even after she graduated last year, she’s stuck with it. She’s been working at Town Hall in the planning department, and she mentioned in passing she wants to get her master’s degree at Tufts once she’s saved enough money and has a little more experience. Sometimes he worries that she’s working too hard, but there are enough Reillys through the store each week that he’s able to check up with them, just to be sure.
Most mornings, there’s a group of regulars who come in to get coffee and the morning copy of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette from the rack, and F.X. has a small table set up in that front corner where they can sit and talk. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll need to keep a table there; those men remember when he was just a boy, working for his father after school. F.X. is near 70, and each year there are fewer coffee regulars in the mornings, felled by the wear and tear of lives lived mostly through jobs at the Angston Textile Mill on the edge of downtown.
After they leave, business is quiet except for the odd person running errands. F.X. spends the time sweeping up and restocking shelves. He gets a small rush after the library story time lets out as parents stop in, children in tow, to pick up the gallon of milk or loaf of bread they forgot they needed for lunch. That traffic has dropped off over the years as more families have both parents at work, but day care is expensive enough now that it seems like more are choosing to have one parent stay home, at least for a few years. He sees some of the younger grandparents, too, the ones whose children were Joe’s age, or a few years younger. It’s hard to believe some days that the people who were teenagers when he took over running the store have grandchildren, but then again, his oldest girl called last week to let them know they would be great-grandparents in the spring because her middle daughter was expecting her first.
Business always picks up around lunchtime as people stop in to get sandwiches to go, to eat at their desks or on the run from one thing to another. He’d added the deli sandwiches back when he first took over the shop, but they were becoming more and more of the business. Fridays were the busiest — pay day — so Mary always stopped in then to handle the register while he sliced and stacked.
Once that dies off, he doesn’t get the next wave until the high school and middle school let out an hour later, the teens who aren’t old enough to drive stopping in for tonic, candy and chips. Some come in every day with their friends, but only buy occasionally. Others seem to have money enough for something new every day. F.X. shakes his head at the idea some days, but it’s not his place to say. He only mentions purchases to parents if they ask, or if he sees a kid stocking up three or four days in a row.
Seems as though he sees most of the adults in town after they get off work, stopping in for deli meats, bread, milk or another essential that’s not worth driving two towns over to get at a grocery store. There’s been talk over the years of Exeter getting its own, but the only big parcel of land that a company could buy is the old Angston Mill and it would cost a fortune to demolish the brick buildings throughout the site. Exeter State has a convenience store on campus, similar to this except for the alcohol and deli counter, and that seems to keep the college students happy.
Katie comes in during the after-work rush and once it dies down, F.X. heads home for the evening. Katie used to study during the quieter night hours, but now she reads or sketches. If she gets into the masters program at Tufts, she would go back to studying — living in the apartment over the garage and taking commuter rail into Boston every day would still be cheaper than getting an apartment near Somerville, and she could use the time to study. She’s already put aside money to use for a laptop, even though it will be another year or two, maybe more, before she can afford to apply. Still, as she watches the hands of the clock tick around that last hour the store is open, she thinks about getting the laptop sooner so she can bring it in for slow nights like these.
The fluorescent lights are harsh and bright against the dark night outside, and as Katie starts to close things down, she can almost feel the isolation that comes from a downtown that shuts down at six o’clock. She cleans the coffee pot, dumping the sludge that’s been sitting there since the last of the coffee drinkers came through a few hours ago, the remaining brew thickening as it sits and the liquid steams off. That done, it’s on the the meat slicer. Mindful of the blade, she carefully wipes it down, avoiding the razor edge that sliced the edge of her palm the first month she worked here in college. Her left palm, thankfully — the thin reminder of her carelessness would forever be rubbing the paper as she took notes otherwise. Sweeping is the last of her major cleaning duties, and Katie is quick about it, long practice sweeping the kitchen floor at home coming into play. The old, scuffed tiles will never look truly clean until they’re replaced — too many years of feet and wax make them a dull yellow-gray instead of the white they started as.
She makes one last pass through the aisles, the lower ones in the front that let Mr. O’Leary see from the deli counter to the coffee corner, and the higher ones in back that carry chips, bread and other supplies from the floor to above her head. She straightens a few items. He always tells her to leave that for him, and she does it anyway. The last thing he needs in the morning is more work.
That done, she closes out the cash register and puts the bag in the safe out back. The metal chest comes up to her waist, and she knows her older brother Dan would love to get a look at the antique metalwork on the dial and hinges.
Katie looks around the store, nods, and shuts down the lights, locking the doors with her key. The streetlights still cast enough glow for her to see nobody lurks between the market and her beat-up Civic. She remembered a time when she never thought about that, but as more new people moved into town, she was more cautious.
As she drives off, only the glow from the refrigerated cases at the back that hold the milk light the store’s windows.