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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Old Salem Shop

By Harriet Leonora Vose Bates (1856–1886)

[Born in Quincy, Ill., 1856. Died in Boston, Mass., 1886. From Old Salem. By Eleanor Putnam.—Edited by Arlo Bates. 1886.]

I WONDER how many people have memories as vivid as mine of the quaint shops which a score of years ago stood placidly along the quiet streets of Salem. In the Salem of to-day there are few innovations. Not many modern buildings have replaced the time-honored landmarks; yet twenty years ago Salem, in certain aspects, was far more like an old colonial town than it is now. When the proprietor of an old shop died it was seldom that a new master entered. Nobody new ever came to Salem, and everybody then living there had already his legitimate occupation. The old shops, lacking tenants, went to sleep. Their green shutters were closed, and they were laid up in ordinary without comment from any one.

I remember one shop of the variety known in Salem as “button stores.” It was kept by two quaint old sisters, whose family name I never knew. We always called them Miss Martha and Miss Sibyl. Miss Martha was the older, and sported a magnificent turban of wonderful construction. Miss Sibyl wore caps and little wintry curls. Both had short-waisted gowns, much shirred toward the belts, and odd little housewives of green leather, which hung from their apron-bindings by green ribbons.

Their wares were few and faded. They had a sparse collection of crewels, old-fashioned laces, little crimped cakes of white wax, and emery balls in futile imitation of strawberries. They sold handkerchiefs, antiquated gauze, and brocaded ribbons, and did embroidery stamping for ladies with much care and deliberation. I remember being once sent to take to these ladies an article which was to be stamped with a single letter. Miss Martha consulted at some length with her sister, and then, with an air of gentle importance, said to me: “Tell your mother, dear, that sister Sibyl will have it ready in one week, certainly.”

On another occasion Miss Sibyl had chanced to give me a penny too much in change; discovering which before I was well away, I returned to the shop and told her of the mistake. Miss Sibyl dropped the penny into the little till,—so slender were the means of these old gentlewomen that I believe even a penny was of importance to them,—and in her gentle voice she asked, “What is your name, dear?” and when I told her she replied, approvingly, “Well, you are an honest child, and you may go home and tell your mother that Miss Sibyl said so.” To this commendation she added the gift of a bit of pink gauze ribbon, brocaded with little yellow and lavender leaves, and I returned to my family in a condition of such conscious virtue that I am convinced that I must have been quite insufferable for some days following.

The only article in which these ladies dealt which specially concerned us children was a sort of gay-colored beads, such as were used in making bags and reticules—that fine old bead embroidery which some people show nowadays as the work of their great-grandmothers. These beads were highly valued by Salem children, and were sold for a penny a thimbleful. They were measured out in a small mustard-spoon of yellow wood, and it took three ladlefuls to fill the thimble. I cannot forget the air of placid and judicial gravity with which dear Miss Martha measured out a cent’s worth of beads.

One winter day Miss Sibyl died. The green shutters of the shop were bowed with black ribbons, and a bit of rusty black crape fluttered from the knob of the half-glass door, inside of which the curtains were drawn as for a Sunday. For a whole week the shop was decorously closed. When it was reopened, only Miss Martha, a little older and grayer and more gently serious, stood behind the scantily filled show-case. My mother went in with me that day and bought some laces. Miss Martha folded each piece about a card and secured the ends with pins, after her usual careful fashion, and made out the quaint little receipted bill with which she always insisted on furnishing customers. As she handed the parcel across the counter she answered a look in my mother’s eyes.

“I did not think she would go first,” she said, simply. “Sibyl was very young to die.”

In the following autumn came Miss Martha’s turn to go. Then the shutters were closed forever. Nobody took the store. The winter snows drifted unchecked into the narrow doorway, and the bit of black crape affixed to the latch by friendly hands waved forlornly in the chilly winds and shivered in the air,—a thing to affect a child weirdly, and to be hastened past with a “creepy” sensation in the uncertain grayness of a winter twilight.