In March almost 20 years ago, an enterprise affecting generations of Frenchtown was reincarnated as La Petite Fenetre, and therein lies a story; in fact, this being Frenchtown, several stories.
Henry Richardson, owner of the shop, has announced that he’s closing, brought up short by the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Richardson got his first job as a sort of errand boy/messenger while a senior in high school, in 1964 fetching can of beans or whatnot for a customer, running an errand and sometimes tending bar at the Victory Bar and Grocery, owned by Pete Ledee. Little did he know he would be serving drinks in the same place almost 40 years later.
Richardson followed high school with a stint in the Army, which he served in Alaska, as opposed to Viet Nam, where most young inductees wound up.
When he came home, he married Irene Greaux and began raising a family while commencing a 25-year career with Island Finance, where he retired as Caribbean area manager.
At that time, he was open for new ventures. And there was something he’d been thinking about for a while.
Richardson and others had been hankering for a friendly neighborhood bar. Since the closing of the late, lamented Bar Normandie, nothing had replaced it. (Some said, nothing could).
“We wanted our own little bar and when Pete Ledee asked if I was interested, there was our answer,” Richardson said.
When the Victory Bar became available it was a perfect fit. Corrine Magras had been running the Victory Bar, and the lease ran out.
“First of all, we needed a name. Why not the little window?” Richardson said. It was an homage to the side window at the Bar Normandie. And the window had a history of its own.
Frenchtown was a fishing community and the Normandie was the fishermen’s first stop on the way to the bayside for a day’s fishing, where the fishermen got served their shot of rum in the morning before going to sea and another when they returned.
The Normandie had also been the desired watering-hole for many politicians, from senators to various commissioners of this or that. In fact, it was known as the “downtown” Legislature. The fisherman, therefore, were directed to the little window facing the street.
Not only the fisherman attended the window. The Richardson brothers, of whom there were 10, and their cohorts would serenade the entire neighborhood with carols and Auld Lang Synes depending on the holiday. It was a tradition.
Therefore, La Petite Fenetre, the little window, was spawned.
The history doesn’t end there.
There’s the name – the Victory Grocery and Bar, itself. In 1952, the Ledee family wanted to open up a grocery and bar, but the Bar Burgundy Bar, located next to the Ledee Property, and the Bar Normandie took a dim view of that. Naturally, they didn’t want the competition. But the Leedee family won out after a few legal fracases. Therefore, what else? It became the Victory bar.
Lo, these many moons later, LaPetite Fenetre has become the preferred locale for a certain element of the community who enjoy the camaraderie. People flock under the bright blue canopy every night congregating in the outside chairs and on the little street where traffic winds around them, often stopping themselves. On nights when there is activity in the parking lot across the street at the Joseph Aubain ballpark, you can barely squeeze in.
Richardson is president of the Frenchtown Civic Association, which sponsors most of the activities, the highlights being Bastille Day, of course, and the annual Frenchtown Tree Lighting ceremony.
The other highlight of the year is Father’s Day, which is celebrated by the Committee for the Betterment of Carenage. And there’s the French Heritage Museum directly across from the bar which draws a lot of visitors, or did until COVID-19.
It was the pandemic that finally brought Richardson’s establishment down. The last time he was able to open for business was before Bastille Day, five months ago.
“I can’t make a living like this. I have to serve food to stay in business; I’m not licensed for that. If I served food, it would have to have a nice atmosphere; I don’t want to open a hot dog stand in the bar,” he said.
“My daughter, Cindy, and I studied the options, and we decided the only viable option was to close.”
Cindy Richardson said it was sad, but inevitable.
“It’s bittersweet. Lots of people are going to miss it, but my father is 72, and he needs to retire and enjoy himself,” she said.
Richardson sighed, looking around at the walls papered with photos of old St. Thomas taken by Claude Malone, long-time police photographer.
“I don’t know what I’ll miss most,” he said.
The atmosphere resembles nothing so much as a living room – granted, a living room where drinks are served – a comfortable place to sit down. And that is exactly what Richardson created.
His business cards reads: “A sophisticated rum shop in the heart of Frenchtown,” and that says it all.
Richardson said they may have one Christmas tree for the lighting – normally they have several trees vying for top honor – but no ceremony, owing to COVID.
His lease has been picked up by local restaurateur JP DeJongh, and is set to open Dec. 15. No further information was available as of Thursday.