July 22, 2005 One day in March 1945, Pierre Magras decided to open up a little store in Frenchtown where folks could buy the everyday stuff they needed.
On that fateful day, La Belle Creole was born. It became the stalwart retail bastion of Frenchtown, perhaps the oldest store of its kind still carrying on.
Today Magras' granddaughter, Beverly, and her husband, Charlie — also a Magras from another family — are doing the same thing: just meeting the everyday needs of the neighborhood.
But in retailing, as in most everything else, it's hardly the same world it was in 1955.
"Where can you get a coal pot today?" asks Magras. "We still sell the cast aluminum coal pots — the manufacturer doesn't have the cast iron now." He then walks toward the rear of the store and picks up a ribbed wooden washboard, "How long since you've seen one of these?" he asks.
Charlie and Beverly Magras bought the store from Almando Magras, Beverly's father, in 1989, about a month before Hurricane Hugo. Pierre Magras had given the store to his son, Almando, and his daughter, Anatalia.
Anatalia took the upstairs of the store, retaining the name, La Belle Creole; and Almando took the downstairs, renaming it Monsieur Creole. After Anatalia Magras moved to Florida, Charlie and Beverly bought the upstairs from her, which they rent to a school. And the downstairs store is simply known today as Mr. Creole.
In 2003 Charlie Magras retired from a long airline career five years with Pan Am World Airways and another 28 with American Airlines after Pan Am went out of business to join his wife full time at the store.
Though his love for the store and for the neighborhood is immediately apparent, life still can be fraught with problems for a "mom and pop" operation. In the last year or so, L & C Milliner Department Store, which also started in the '50s, has closed its doors, as has the Red Ball Grocery, a Savan landmark.
Magras says, "People come to us still for those things you can't get at Kmart or Home Depot."
He continues, "After Hugo destroyed Woolworths in 1989, we were one of the few places where you could still buy things like lamps and wicks." Nobody had any power then.
"What we offer is personal service," Magras says. "You should see people stop in the street and call up to us to see if we have something, a zipper maybe, and if we have it we grab it and run out to the street.
"It's not like Kmart where they tell you it's in aisle six, if they even know where something is," Magras continues. "We know where everything is in here — even without electricity we still know.
"We have stuff you can't find other any other place," he says. "For instance, if you buy a pressure cooker at Kmart, and it breaks, they don't carry the parts. We carry all the replacement parts."
While we are talking an older woman comes in to buy a gas stove, the kind you place on the counter. "I'm so glad to find one," she says. "We got 12 of those about a week ago," Magras says, "and we have one left."
Looking around the store, it appears there's almost nothing it doesn't carry. It's a true cornucopia of stuff, lots and lots of stuff. One shelf has school uniforms, while a table in front has bolts of plaid yardage. There's dress patterns alongside blue-accented enamel mugs, and there's all manner of hair ribbons, velvet and satin. Also, there's toothbrushes and scrub brushes, and in the rear of the store, there's wash tubs, the old-fashioned aluminum kind — with handles and ribs on the sides.
And the store has another welcome addition to the neighborhood a laundromat. It's small, off to the side of the store with just a few machines. "It was here when we bought the store," Magras says. "It's a big help because lots of people around here can't afford washers and dryers." Indeed, the laundromat is busy, purring along.
The store had one highly unusual setback lately — having nothing to do with the world of merchandising — when the Public Works Department installed a No Right Turn sign at the intersection of Rue de Carenage, which runs right in front of Mr. Dollar. The result being that most of the store's traffic was cut off.
"We had days where it would have paid us not to open up," Magras says.
The signs have subsequently been taken down, pending review by the V.I. Police Department. Magras grins, "I don't care who takes them down, Public Works or the police, I'm just glad they're gone."
Magras has been an outspoken opponent of the signs. (See "Frenchtown Residents Sound Off Over Sign Controversy".)
Stepping out to the store's front porch and looking down the street, Magras says, "The neighborhood has changed a lot. The drugstore used to be the Bar Burgundy, Noche was Bar Normandie. Danet's Dry Goods store is gone, and Mac's Meat Market is gone, and the Lionel Magras Grocery is gone."
But the venerable La Belle, as it was affectionately known for years and still is despite the Mr. Creole name still stands.
As a customer walks in to the store, Magras returns to the counter.
"I need a long comb for my wife. Do you have that?" the man asks. Magras plucks one out from behind the counter.
"I guess you better give me one for me, too," the customer says.
Then, eyeing a jar on the counter, he says, "Oh, eucalyptus drops. How much?"
"Three for a quarter," says Magras.
"OK, give me three of those, too," says the customer, walking out happily munching on a drop.
The Magrases have three sons, but it doesn't look like any of them will be running a little store in Frenchtown. Chuck is in the Army Reserve living in New Hampshire; Chad is a salesman in Florida; and Cory is an executive chef in Massachusetts.
When asked what will become of the store, Beverly Magras gives a big smile and shrugs her shoulders, "Who knows?"
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