AUGUSTA — Norm Rodrigue fondly recalls growing up on Sand Hill, where small family-owned markets helped foster a better way of life in the then largely Franco-American working class community.

Intrigued, he researched the stories of these dozens of tiny but often full-service stores, interviewed some of their former owners, workers and customers, and produced a video documenting what he found out, “Les Magasins,” French for “The Stores.”

“They were more than grocery stores; they were gathering places,” said the 67-year-old Rodrigue, who now lives in Manchester. “They served a social purpose. In many ways, they connected the hill.”

Judging by the response to the video Rodrigue made on the hill and elsewhere in and around Augusta and on social media, he wasn’t alone in being intrigued by the stories to be found there. An over seven-minute trailer of the video has been widely shared on Facebook and other social media outlets and has had more than 5,400 views on YouTube.

Rodrigue sold all 100 DVDs he had made of the full, 47-minute video with another 100 on the way.

Lucien Labbe, 78, who still lives in his Sand Hill home just behind the former Labbe’s Market built and opened by his father, Adelard Labbe, in 1952, is among the Franco-Americans interviewed for the video. Lucien Labbe closed the store in 1994 after spending some four decades behind the counter selling beer, candy, onions, bread and other groceries. When he heard what Rodrigue was doing, he sat down and from memory wrote down a list of nearly 30 stores that once populated just the Sand Hill area of Augusta, though not all at the same time, until all the stores had closed in the 1990s.

Labbe said when he’s out shopping or visiting in Augusta, people often recognize him from the video.

“Wherever I go, there’s somebody who approaches me and says they’ve seen me in it,” Labbe said. “I was just at Wal-Mart the other day, and two people said they’d seen the video and wanted to know where they could get a copy. That reminds me — I’ve got to get a copy for my grandson.”

Rodrigue said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well the video has been received and said he only really anticipated his family and friends would enjoy the video.

Rodrigue believes the video touches people in part because of who is in it — the Franco-American families for whom the stores were their livelihoods and gathering spots. That includes 93-year-old Madeline Patenaude and other members of the Patenaude family who, with their late father, Irenee “Rene” Patenaude, ran what was the largest of the Sand Hill stores, Patenaude’s Superette. Their grandfather, Wilfred Patenaude, ran the store from 1914 to 1946, when Rene took it over. Gerard “Gerry” Poulin, in an emotional close to the video, reflects on how Rene Patenaude was like a father to him after he worked at the store at the age of 10 and taught him the importance of treating people with respect.

“None of these people are actors,” Rodrigue said. “Part of what makes the video work is them. Their honesty, the way they come across.”

But the video also likely has gotten the response it has because many people like to look back at what was, Rodrigue and Labbe said, a better life than most people seem to be living today.

The small but full-service stores thrived in the days before supermarkets, especially in neighborhoods like Augusta’s Sand Hill, where many people didn’t have cars and walked to work in local mills and shoe shops.

Labbe, who has lived in the neighborhood his entire life, said he used to know everyone and their family on each of the streets near his home and store. Families tended to be loyal to one or two of the stores, keeping credit accounts there they usually paid off on payday.

They may not have had cars, or a lot of money, but they had each other.

“The reality is it was tough economic times. You had it rough on the hill, but at the same time you were in this together,” Rodrigue said. “There weren’t the haves and the have-nots. We were all have-nots. You felt safe as a kid. Everyone knew you, so if you even thought about getting in trouble, your parents knew about it before you did it.”

Rodrigue said his dad worked at the mill and would stop nearly every day on the walk home at stores such as Couture’s Market on Oxford Street or Clem’s on Northern Avenue for a cold beer, as the stores also served as informal, if illegal, pubs. He said police generally looked the other way at the practice.

Rodrigue said his family of seven usually shopped at Patenaude’s.

Most of the stores allowed people to shop on credit, and some delivered. Rodrigue said Patenaude’s would deliver twice a day. If no one was home when they were delivering, the doors to customer’s homes were left unlocked back then, so the store employee, usually a Patenaude family member, would let themselves in and put the perishable groceries away for the customer.

Labbe said he still offered credit at his store up until it closed in 1994. He said he only rarely had customers who never paid their bills. He said he closed because the hours, some 14 hours a day six days a week, were too much.

He recalled one customer, a lumberjack, came in one day and explained he’d be working in the woods for weeks at a time, and his wife would shop at Labbe’s Market on credit. While the lumberjack would send his wife some money to pay some of her bill at the store, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the total amount. The man told Labbe he’d settle up with him once he emerged from the woods. Which, without fail, he did.

One day Labbe got a phone call from a bank, asking about the lumberjack and whether he had been good about paying him back. He answered that he was, vouching for him and thinking the man had used him for a reference to get a loan.

A few days later Labbe got a check from the man who, it then became clear to Labbe, had taken out a loan from the bank to pay what he owed at the store.

The proliferation of small stores wasn’t specific to Sand Hill. In 1952, according to Manning’s, an annually produced directory, there were 76 grocery stores in Augusta, as well as three bakers, nine confectioneries, nine druggists, three fish dealers, three fruit dealers and sixteen meat retailers.

By the early 1960s supermarkets began opening in the city. Car ownership became more prevalent. As their financial situations improved, many Franco-American families moved off the hill. The demise of industry meant the gradual disappearance of mill jobs there. As all those things left, so did the stores. By 1978, it was down to only a half-dozen stores on Sand Hill. Now, only the Iraqi-run Mainly Groceries and Chen’s Chinese takeout and store at the site of the former Sunset Market are on Sand Hill.

“They relied on that foot traffic and that concentrated ethnic neighborhood,” Rodrigue said. “Once that eroded, they couldn’t survive.”

Rodrigue has long taken still photographs and said he decided to make videos in part because his cameras can also shoot videos. He took an Augusta Adult Education class from Andre Cormier to further his video skills.

He said he may do more such videos in the future. He also plans to look into entering “Les Magasins,” which took him about a year and a half to make, in film festivals.

Neither he nor Labbe think the small family-owned stores, which they said provided the families that owned them with a good living, will ever come back to Sand Hill, at least not in the large numbers they once made up.

Labbe said society has changed, people spend more time watching television and on their phones instead of socializing and getting to know their neighbors.

“It has changed, the lifestyle,” Labbe said. “That’s gone.”

Copies of Rodrigue’s video will be available for purchase for $10 at Vickery Cafe on Water Street in downtown Augusta.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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