December 23, 2011. In less than 24 hours, the lights will go out . . . after a hundred years.

I won’t.  And neither will you.  But someone will.

That’s the beauty and the mystery of old buildings.  And it’s a kind of immortality.  Think: the Pyramids of Giza.  The Eiffel Tower.  And Folino’s Superette.

We revere old buildings for different reasons.  For the pyramids, it may be for their massiveness and their durability.  I’m sure the function, which archaeologists are still guessing at, is also a factor.

For Mr. Eiffel’s monument, it may be for the concept.  It is a grand idea, it is an engineering marvel, and it provides an unforgettable skyline.  Secretly we may be repelled by its ugliness, but it transcends that feeling, and we cannot imagine the world without it.

What is it about Folino’s at 198 Algoma Street South in Thunder Bay, Ontario?  It is not a pretty structure.  Neither is it large.  It never made it into any architect’s portfolio.  No mystery there.  And it will very likely not survive another hundred years.  But something about it will.

The last generation Folino (Brad) with the first generation cash register.

Decades ago, when I discovered Folino’s, I was delighted to find a retail outlet for almost every magazine available in Canada and the States, and for the big city newspapers that it carried.  No other store in Thunder Bay offered that service.

It came as a shock, several months ago, when I walked into the store and found the magazine choices severely limited and several racks gone.  Okay, we are in a semi-recession and competition is fierce and businesses are hurting.  There were now several shelves of food items, what you’d expect in a convenience store, but not nearly the same range on offer.  Sure, an entrepreneur must adapt to changing times.  I understood all that.  But the Folino’s experience had changed irrevocably.

Local MPP Michael Gravelle created a commemorative certificate to mark the closing of a popular institution.

I still called in when I was in town, if only for the lottery tickets.  I knew that if I was destined to have a big win, it would come from Folino’s.

The other day the city newspaper informed the world that Folino’s was closing.  Shock waves ran throughout the community.  I know I felt them.  Then I caught Brad Folino’s interview on local radio.  He seemed resigned to the inevitable and prepared to embrace a new career.  Brad was the last generation of the Folino family to run the store, seven days a week, for hours a day that would boggle an ordinary working person.

I learned that Brad’s grandfather started the business a hundred years ago, in 1912.  It began as a soda shoppe, before they put soft drinks into bottles.  The business underwent several changes of direction in a century.  The building itself, therefore, is a least a century old.  Brad is now offering to lease the space to some other dreamer.  The business name of Folino’s will be dropped.

On December 24, the solitary magazine rack waits for its last customer.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, during a snowstorm, I stopped across the street from Folino’s.  I could see people coming and going, and festive decorations through the display window of the building.  I snapped a photo, but I didn’t go inside.  It didn’t feel right.

Brad Folino's grandfather has stationed himself behind the business's dazzling technological innovation - a manually-operated cash register.

On Christmas Eve, daytime, I called in.  I happened to arrive during the last hour that the business would be operating.  People were still dropping in.  In a side room, Brad had gathered together a few close friends and members of family.  They were about to drink a toast, to say goodbye to the past and to greet the future.  There were no tears being shed.  On radio, Brad had confessed to squeezing out many a tear as customers had dropped into to commiserate and to share happy memories.

Brad recognized me – one sign of successful entrepreneurial genes – and shook my hand.  Invited me to join them for a glass of bubbly.   I didn’t notice him extending the invitation to any other customers, so I was doubly honoured.

Family & close friends prepare to open the bubbly. Brad on the left.

I asked his permission to take a few pictures.  Permission readily granted.

Given Thunder Bay’s history with historic buildings, the Folino building will not be standing in one hundred years.  Granted, a city cannot save all its historic structures.  Still, Thunder Bay has a record similar to other cities: it makes valiant efforts to save selected sites, maybe not even the most important sites, and destroys the rest, some of which historians of the future will be castigating current office-holders for.

But historians will be preserving the best part of Folino’s Superette: memories of the owners and their service and their key role in one of the city’s historic neighbourhoods.

I’m doing my part here, now.

Before I left Folino’s for the last time, I bought a Globe and Mail and a lottery ticket.  Plan to put them into a time capsule, to be opened in a hundred years.

Yeah, right.

Definitely NOT the last word . . .


About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website
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