Bill’s Food Shop Stays as Neighborhood Changes

Photos by Emily Hopkins

It’s easy to walk past Bill’s Food Shop in West Somerville and not notice it. The convenience store, located at 53 Conwell Ave., could be mistaken for another private residence if not for the faded sign outside. Music from the AM 740 oldies station flows from the speakers, and an old-school sign advertising 75-cent slush puppies sits above the counter. The photos and posters hanging on the walls look like they’ve been there for decades. A Cinema Paradiso poster and a map of Italy pay tribute to the owners’ heritage, and faded Nesquik signs facing the street cover one of the windows.

“We bought [the store] from a guy named Vicilios, who was Albanian,” said owner Frank DiFonzo, 78. “‘Bill’s’ must have been a translation or nickname. When we bought the space we decided not to change the name. People were used to coming to Bill’s, so we didn’t want to create a confusion.”A Somerville native, DiFonzo has owned and run Bill’s for 57 years, since he and his father moved into the upstairs apartment when he was 21. Back then Bill’s Food Shop wasn’t the only store on the street. The area used to be full of local businesses, including the Conwell Ave. Market across the street, a First National supermarket at the corner of Conwell and College Hill and Maher Market, which sold beer, wine and groceries. Now neighbors and potential competitors include the Stop and Shop on Alewife Brook Pkwy., which used to house Johnnie’s Foodmaster.Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.09.20 PM

Although the addition of Stop and Shop may alarm local entrepreneurs, DiFonzo says that it doesn’t affect his business as much as one might think. “People drive everywhere,” he said. “If people want to go to a supermarket they go to a supermarket. There used to be half a dozen cars on this street. Now there are half a dozen cars in each driveway.”

Because most shoppers have access to bigger, more recognizable stores, DiFonzo says there is a sense of loyalty in the customers who have contributed to Bill’s Food Shop’s survival over the years. Patrons know DiFonzo and greet him by name. One customer, an older man with white hair, chuckles to himself as he listens to DiFonzo’s description of the neighborhood dynamic. He turns and says, “Frank is one of the last of the Mohicans.” Indeed, there are no other small businesses left on Conwell Ave. Even the tenants in the homes surrounding the store have changed over the years. DiFonzo explains that back when he opened the store, there were many families in the area that would come in daily.

“Parents used to send their kids in to buy cigarettes. The kids would get a candy bar or an ice cream while they were here,” he says, gesturing towards a freezer now full of Ben and Jerry’s pints. Nowadays, the average customer at Bill’s Food Shop is a Tufts student or a young professional living in the area.

“In ‘57 there were all types of families [in the neighborhood] with two or three kids each. Now families can’t afford rent,” said DiFonzo. While his store has changed little over the years, the neighborhood around Bill’s, like much of Somerville, has has gotten younger and more expensive. There aren’t as many children walking around, and more and more families are living elsewhere.

Despite all that, Bill’s remains, perhaps as a testament to Old Somerville’s values of pride and loyalty. A commitment to small businesses and a desire keep the neighborhood in the hands of the neighbors may have something to do with its endurance as well. Or maybe the store just has the perfect mix of charm and nostalgia that keeps people coming in for the oldies music and 75-cent slush puppies.