Romeo’s Plaza

I wish to note the passing of Paul Romeo last week. At 82, Paul was a visible presence in Ashland for well over half a century and I remember him along with his Dad: Santo “Pa” Romeo, Eber Levine, Dr. Morgan, Wally Pearson, Tom Waters, and many others that made Ashland an interesting place to grow up. Paul would constantly challenge me on my articles saying “You spelled this name wrong” or “Did you know he/she was related to so and so.” I enjoyed his comments and criticisms. Paul wasn’t always right, but he was never wrong. In addition to owning Romeo’s Supermarket, Paul was a town official serving on the Finance Committee and as Town Treasurer, as well as being actively involved in many local organizations. This commitment to the community ensured he would run into practically everyone in town at one point or another.

Local merchants are the backbone of the community, and if your particular town isn’t blessed with a Route 9 or 495, it takes an extra effort for these businesses to survive. Fortunately, the Mom and Pop stores thrived back then because the chain stores and franchised restaurants didn’t exist. Many of our neighboring towns have local stores they call their own. Hopkinton has Colella’s, Framingham has the Waverly Market, and Ashland had Romeo’s Supermarket. The operative word being “had.” Sure, we have convenience stores, but other than the chain stores like Shaw’s or Market Basket there really isn’t a locally owned supermarket left in town. But there was.

Santo “Pa” Romeo first opened his grocery store in downtown Ashland. On or about 1960, the Romeos constructed a new store on Union Street across from the power station that was torn down to construct what is now the Rite Aid Pharmacy. Romeo’s had all the latest and greatest features for the time: Automatic swinging entry and exit doors, conveyors feeding the cash registers, and even automatic change dispensers that looked like water slides that rattle your change down the shoot after the sale was completed. The cashier still had to hand you the bills, but the change machine was a nice touch.

Being a “supermarket,” Romeo’s had a full service deli and meat department, fruit, dairy, and vegetable aisles, and the usual compliment of dry and canned goods. The only thing different from today’s stores is the absence of bar code scanners at checkout, and each item actually had a price on it!

Friday night always seemed to be the busiest. Probably due to the fact that in the 60s a lot of middle-class Americans were paid on Fridays. You could park your car right up to the sidewalk in front of the store and people were constantly jockeying for the prime spots next to the automatic doors. There were no restricted fire lanes or dedicated handicap spots which made it a constant free-for-all.

Romeo’s Plaza was probably what could be considered one of the first “strip malls.” In addition to the supermarket there were three other stores attached to the right. The first one was Kenneth’s Hair Salon run by “Mr. Bob,” the second was Ashland Hardware owned by Tom Shahood, and the end unit belonged to Mickey’s Restaurant run by Tony Zichella and his family. The Laundromat was added next to Mickey’s years later, as was the standalone Natick Five Cents Savings Bank (now the Middlesex Bank) in 1978.

But as time passes everything is subject to change. With the exception of the Middlesex Bank, all of the peripheral establishments changed hands multiple times, and eventually Romeo’s itself stopped operating in 1986. Finally, the entire plaza was demolished and a newer, modern series of stores was built in its place. Gone is the old and familiar yellow brickwork of Romeo’s. The only building remaining from that era gone by is the bank.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions