The Stop & Shop is Provincetown’s agora.
Oh, yes, it would be more satisfying — spiritually and intellectually — to anoint Town Hall with that exalted distinction. Or MacMillan Wharf. But the plain truth of the matter is that this supermarket is the center of town. If you spend enough time in its aisles, just about everyone you’d want to see (and one or two people you didn’t) will almost certainly pass by. This structure is nearly an acre in extent; 43,479 square feet, according to the assessor. That may sound dinky by big-box standards, but on the lower Cape it is nothing short of colossal. You could fit the entire permanent population of Provincetown easily in about half of the store’s space, without even having to remove the shelves.
And a lot of those people would tell you — if asked — that they were standing “in the A&P.” It hasn’t been that for a decade now, but old habits die hard in Provincetown, and the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was one of the older habits around. Time was when there were two branches of the chain; one in the West End, at 120 Commercial Street, and one downtown, at 315 Commercial Street. Following, if not trailing, the national trend, these two neighborhood grocery stores were superseded in 1958 by Provincetown’s first supermarket, the A&P at 32 Conwell Street.
The property on which the last A&P was built had been purchased in 1973 by Charles W. “Chuck” Silva (b 1938), one of the town’s most powerful and influential businessmen. Four years later, he prepared a subdivision plan, with eight lots. These were substantial, too; up to 28,000 square feet. In 1988, Silva conveyed all eight lots to the Seagull Realty Trust, of which he and his wife, Helen T. Silva (b 1944), are trustees, evidently in preparation for construction of the new supermarket.
In the midst of a general retrenching in 2003, A&P sold five stores on the Cape and Islands to Grand Union Family Markets, including this one. It was not an especially happy transition, to judge from contemporary accounts. Grand Union was on the defensive almost immediately. (Mary Ann Bragg, “Supermarket Official Coming in Response to Criticism,” The Provincetown Banner, 12 June 2003.) In any case, their stewardship of the store did not last long. Five years later, Stop & Shop took over. The Banner described it as “clean, bright, well-lit, well-stocked,” suggesting indirectly some of the infirmities of the Grand Union period.
Seamen’s Bank has long been part of the complex. However, its small branch here had the unwanted distinction in 2001 of being the setting of the only bank robbery in Seamen’s history. The criminals had set fire to the nearby Gull’s Nest Motel, 6 Sandy Hill Lane, hoping — in vain, it turned out — that emergency responders would be so consumed by the disaster that they wouldn’t notice a robbery in progress. They escaped on bicycles, but left so many clues and evidence in their wake — including the bikes — that they were apprehended later that day in the East End. (Liz Winston, “Motel Fire Linked With Bank Heist,” The Provincetown Banner, 18 January 2001.)
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