Collamati family store remembered in new exhibit at Historical Society

Collamati family store remembered in new exhibit at Historical Society

The Collamati family operated this supermarket on the corner of Social Street and Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket from 1919 until 1963.

WOONSOCKET – Not so long ago, grocery shopping in Woonsocket meant hopping a bus or walking the few blocks to the nearest store, picking out your items and ringing them up with a clerk who knew you by name, and all your siblings, too. If you were lucky, your purchase might earn enough green stamps to add to a booklet you’ve been saving for a trip to the redemption center. For those living along the city’s border with Bellingham, Mass., and Blackstone, that store was probably Collamati’s, and your family had probably been going there for generations.

That piece of the city’s history is memorialized in a new exhibit on the Collamati family grocery stores that opened at the Woonsocket Historical Society last Saturday, July 13. The exhibit was compiled by Joyce (Collamati) Bileau, a former resident of Bellingham and the youngest grandchild of Arduino and Juliette Collamati, and her cousin, Bill Baisley, also a grandchild of the founders of the long-running grocery stores.

Her interest in putting together an exhibit, she explained, was sparked two years ago when she met Woonsocket Historical Society President Irene Blais at the Museum of Work and Culture. Upon learning her maiden name was Collamati, Blais asked if she was related to the grocery store owners and explained the Historical Society often gets visitors who ask about the Collamati stores.

Bileau and Baisley had previously put together an album of family history for her uncle’s 100th birthday party, and now took on the task of digging out memories of the family’s time in the grocery business. The search unveiled several items for the new exhibit, including a grocery bag, newspaper advertisement and the fondly-remembered stamps that customers could redeem for goods.

“The more people I talked to, the more I realized I didn’t know,” she said.

Though most former shoppers will remember the stores on Pulaski Boulevard and at the corner of Diamond Hill Road and Social Street, members of the Collamati family actually ran eight stores in the Rhode Island and Bellingham areas between 1913 and 1965, explained Bileau.

The story begins with Arduino Collamati, an Italian immigrant who moved to Woonsocket from Belvedere-Ostrense, Italy, in 1907 at the age of 16. Arduino’s cousin, Ernesto, had immigrated to Woonsocket the previous year, opening a rooming house in a home that still stands on Diamond Hill Road and a bar on River Street.

Arduino took up work at the American Paper Tube Company on East School Street, where he met Juliette Richard, an immigrant from Belgium. The couple married at St. Louis Church, now All Saints Parish, on Feb. 4, 1913. That same year, they opened their first grocery store in the living room of a house on the corner of Bellingham Street and Pulaski Boulevard. The “living store,” as Bileau called it, was similar to one run by Juliette’s family, who perhaps inspired them to go into business.

By 1919, the store had outgrown the family living room, and the business moved to a new location on the corner of Diamond Hill Road and Social Street. The building, now home to Family Discount Furniture, was an ideal fit for the growing business, and Collamati’s would remain in Woonsocket for the next four decades, where Arduino, and later his oldest son, Joseph, managed the store.

Juliette, 96, one of four surviving children of Arduino and Juliette, recalled working as a cashier at the store as a teenager. Nearly all the family’s nine children spent time behind the grocery counter, selling produce, meat and other necessities to patrons who sometimes caught the bus from other towns to take advantage of the good deals. During the Great Depression and the rationing of the war years, men would come to the store to buy groceries on personal credit, occasionally working off their debt on the family farm in Bellingham.

“My dad would bring home items, especially in the produce department, that were edging over the bad side,” recalled Juliette. “He took that home and my mom would take care of that. Nothing went to waste.”

Following World War II, Joseph opened State Line Convenience Store on Bellingham Street and another market on Cass Avenue, bringing the family’s total number of stores to three. Arduino’s daughter, Helene, also went into business, opening up Eddie’s Food Mart on Diamond Hill Road – “the biggest little store” – with her husband, Edi-Minotto Callegaro, and Eddie’s Depot Market in Riverside. A cousin, Hugo Collamati, ran Hugo’s market on Wood Avenue, later moving the store to Diamond Hill Road.

In 1963, the main store moved to Pulaski Boulevard, where it had a brief run in the 25,000-square-foot space now home to Rocky’s Ace Hardware before Joseph sold it to Almacs in 1965.

“Unionizing was starting to come in, and so after some discussion – and many years of long hours running the store – they decided to sell to Almacs, and my uncle worked for Almacs until he retired,” said Bileau.

The sale marked a shift in the grocery industry as family-run stores began to give way to regional chains. Today, gas points have replaced green stamps as the preferred consumer incentive, and many shoppers cash themselves out at the checkout line. Bileau said she thinks the enthusiasm over the history of her family’s stores is driven in part by nostalgia for another time.

“It’s part of everyday life. Your local grocer plays an important part in the community,” she said.

Last Saturday, former store employees and members of the Collamati family – including 104-year-old Louis, the oldest surviving sibling – came together for a celebration of the exhibit that happened to fall during the 100-year anniversary of the opening of the Social Street store. Bileau hopes the exhibit encourages residents to support the Woonsocket Historical Society, where the memories of many families, including hers, are preserved. Though only a handful of family members work in the grocery industry today, the photographs and artifacts bring the family back to a time when her grandfather was head of a small grocery empire, an Italian immigrant in Woonsocket living his own American dream.

“Arduino didn’t have a lot, but he built a lot,” she said.

From 1963 to 1965, Collamati’s grocery store operated on Pulaski Boulevard in Bellingham, Mass. In 1965, the family sold the store to Almacs.
A Collamati family photo on display in the exhibit was taken around 1943. In back, from left, are sons Albert, Joseph, Romeo, Ernest, Lucien and Louis. In front, from left, are daughters Helene and Juliette, parents Juliette and Arduino, and daughter Cecilia.