WOONSOCKET – Gertrude A. Franco winces as she lifts her right arm to dust off a glass shelf lined with statues of saints, crucifixes, and other religious articles and gifts.
The longtime owner of A Special Place, a religious gift shop tucked away in a corner storefront on North Main Street, Franco, 76, is battling painful arthritis in her shoulder, a condition that has made daily operation of the shop difficult at best.
And considering her business partner, Armand Froment, turned 93 this year, it’s easy to understand why the two longtime friends made the decision to leave the business they started nearly 20 years ago.
The only store of its kind in the city, A Special Place is just that - a one-stop shop for Blackstone Valley residents looking for that special baptism or communion gift, or Mass card or religious medal without the burden of having to drive to LaSalette Shrine or some other out-of-the-way religious gift shop.
But yesterday, after years of serving the city’s spiritual needs, Franco and Froment locked the door of the shop behind them for the very last time.
“Although we know there is still a strong need in this area for our type of business, we had to face the grim fact that we are getting older and physically less capable of operating the store,” says the diminutive former C.C.D. teacher.
But as Franco is fond of saying, when one door closes, another one opens.
While Franco and Froment may be leaving, A Special Place isn’t going anywhere.
“After hearing of our closing, we were approached by Tom Tatro, who agreed to continue the business together with his wife Jane,” says Franco, who lives on Harris Avenue in the city.
Tatro, a Burrillville resident, is now the new owner and will take over the business beginning Tuesday.
The shop, located in the same building housing Christopher’s Restaurant at 614 North Main St., will still have the same operating hours and same inventory.
“They will continue serving our customers in the same manner and with the same commitment that we have established,” says Franco. “We’re hoping our loyal customers give Tom and Jane the same level of courtesy and understanding that we were so blessed to have received.”
Franco and Froment say that while they are sad to leave the business behind, they’re comforted by the fact the store will remain open and for the most part unchanged.
For example, A Special Place will still be one of the few places in Rhode Island you can buy a greeting card for 60 cents, which is a novel concept at a time when greeting cards can cost as much as $5.
In fact, greeting cards are what got Froment thinking about opening the shop to begin with. Froment wanted to have a store that sold affordable greeting cards, and when he approached Franco about the idea, it was she who suggested the store also offer religious gifts and articles.
“We saw a need for religious articles and gifts that was sorely lacking in this area,” Franco said. “Coupled with 60-cent greeting cards, it became a novel enterprise.”
Franco and Froment opened the business 19 years ago on Lloyd Street in Blackstone, “where we built a special family of wonderful employees that we consider friends,” she says.
Three of those original employees – Muriel Dugas, Lucille Langevin and Irene Lamoureux, - were with Franco and Froment from the day they opened their shop to the day they closed it in 2008 and reopened in Woonsocket.
Franco, a parishioner at St. Theresa Church in Blackstone who also sings in the choir at St. Anthony’s Church in Woonsocket, says she will miss the store, but realizes that age and being physically less capable have finally caught up with her.
“Our customers were all special people to us and we did our best to accommodate their needs,” she says. “To them, we offer a special thank you.”