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    NYT at Mary Watts Store story by Peter Kerr, Special To the New York Times

    May 12, 1986


    In many ways, Mary’s Store was Princeton’s version of a Harpo Marx overcoat: no matter what you were looking for, it was in there somewhere.

    The store – a ramshackle stand with gas pumps in front and a musty jungle of shelves and hanging hooks inside – was the place to go if you needed a mousetrap, a custard pie, a walnut tree, a tractor belt, a book on zinc or schizophrenia, Dixie cups, confetti, underwear, a washtub or parakeet gravel.

    Until this weekend, it was also a place to talk about a birth or a backache.

    And so it was with hushed voices that three generations of Princetonians pulled their cars to the dirt shoulder of Route 206 this weekend to browse the aisle one last time at ”Mary’s Going Out of Business Sale.” They came to say goodbye to Mary Watts, who stood behind the counter, as she has since 1927, dispensing wisdom on health, hard work and the damage done by ”the Demmies in Washington.”

    Days of the Depression Recalled

    ”There just isn’t going to be any place like this anymore, where they know every customer by name,” said Jean Silvester, a broadcaster on a local radio station who, together with her husband, Val, had been a customer for years. ”During the Depression, I know, she used to give people credit until they found work.”

    ”My husband and I used to play a game on the way here,” she said. ”We’d try to think of what Mary wouldn’t have. Miracle Whip? A fly swatter? We never won.”

    The store has changed little since Mrs. Watts and her husband, Raymond, bought the plot of land in farm country just north of town, to sell gasoline, vegetables and anything else passers-by could ask for.

    Recent years, however, have brought shopping centers, computer companies and health clubs to Route 206, and have left no place for a Mary’s Store. After decades of resistance, Mrs. Watts sold the land to developers who plan to build the ”Princeton Gateways Corporate Campus.” She expects to live quietly in an apartment over a nearby garage.

    ”I’m too tired to do it any more,” the 85-year-old Mrs. Watts said. ”We’ve got to close because no one else knows what it’s about.”

    For years Mrs. Watts knew the store was something out of place. Customers drove by on their way to shopping centers or supermarkets where everything was new, plastic-wrapped and stocked in sensible, ordered aisles. No dust on the jar tops. No musty smell.

    But Mrs. Watts persevered, arguing that even if a product was not selling today, there would be someone someday who would need it.

    So the blue boxer shorts hung on their hook until the doors shut for the last time. The malt vinegar remained in place at 35 cents a bottle, the distilled white vinegar remained a penny less and the double washtub – a precursor of the washing machine -which was marked $21 when Roosevelt was in the White House was still $21 yesterday since, of course, it had never been used.

    ”How’s the small fry?” Mrs. Watts asked one longtime customer, using a term reserved for local offspring born after 1930. The counter was lined with mounted newspaper clippings of her small fry who have built buildings, won scholarships and had babies of their own. The fry included the sons of George Gallup Jr., the Princeton pollster, who as children would buy presents at the store every Christmas Eve.

    ”Real good,” the elderly woman replied to Mrs. Watts. ”But my husband’s ear is still bad.”

    ”When they get baldheaded, that’s when it starts,” said Mrs. Watts, who keeps her white head protected by a thick wool cap. ”They get cold there. But some day they are going to find out what makes us tick. You’ll see.” The customer nodded and took a last look around. ”You take care, Mary.”

    Career Change

    The store came into being, Mrs. Watts said, about the time she decided her husband was not suited to be a Princeton police officer.

    ”He was always bringing home drunks so they wouldn’t go to jail,” Mrs. Watts recalled. ”He wasn’t hard enough for that kind of work.”

    ”So one day I said to him, ‘You go out and buy that piece of land for a store,’ ” Mrs. Watts said. ”I said, ‘Don’t come back for dinner if you don’t have it.’ ”

    The dirt road had recently been paved by prison chain gangs, said Mrs. Watts, who can still point out the local wells that were dug to supply water. From local farms, the store was able to get cider, produce and logs, she said, and as the years went by, it began to stock everything from tulip bulbs to tire patches.

    ”I remember she was kind of cute, a blonde woman behind the counter,” said Edward Atoyian, a 53-year-old Princeton resident who remembers looking up at Mrs. Watts in 1940 and asking for a penny sourball. The store was unusual in those days for being open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

    Customers’ Appreciation

    Starting in 1956, Mr. Atoyian assisted Mrs. Watts and became her second-in-command at her husband’s death in 1963, he said. He recalled that every August customers would erect a 30-foot sign in front of the store that said ”Happy Birthday Mary.” On Thanksgiving, when she was working, they would bring Mrs. Watts platters of their turkey dinners, he said.

    Several times Mrs. Watts had been robbed in her store, and once she had been pistol whipped, he said, but she was always open the next day. And she kept an ”honor box,” outside where customers would drop their change for newspapers.

    ”This is where my husband asked me for my first date,” said Dorothy Weingart, who wandered among the hairpins, lotions and bygone toys, such as a ”Gene Autry and His Horse Champion Official Ranch Outfit.”

    ”Mary, you’re out of cigarettes,” said Al Perone, 56, who first came to the store when he was 15 and bought his first pack there. ”Sorry, kid, told you we’d be all out.” ”Well, all square?” he asked, heading for the door.

    ”Yeah, kid, all square.”

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