The Irreplacable Loss of Stu and Stasny's

For seven years, I lived on Western Avenue, two doors down from Stasny's Meat Market, in a quiet working class neighborhood in Saint Paul's North End. Stasny's butcher shop (and the strikingly similar Kamps' a half-block away) formed the heart of the community at the top of the hill. Not that there was much competition. Back in the streetcar days, the Western Avenue line used to terminate at the corner, and I can only imagine that back then there were a bunch of shops on the street corner. Sixty years later, only the two butcher shops remained.

But it was more than enough because Stasny's was an exception that proved the rule of so-called progress. I once took my mother into the shop, and I remember her saying, "This is just like my grandfather's store from when I was a kid." My great-grandfather had run a general store in a tiny prairie town on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, and my mom had "worked" there sometimes, running the counter as a kid or helping with the produce. Hearing the stories, I'd never been able to picture what that might have looked like, but Stasny's offered me a glimpse into my mother's childhood, a link between generations.

(The other link? My old uncle, who died a few years ago at the age of 92. He grew up in the neighborhood with Jim Stasny's father, and was dedicated to Stasny's like a religion. I'd get gift certificates for odd amounts in my mailbox, for use on foodstuffs or cuts. To his last days, my uncle always called the younger butcher "Jimmy," a name that also I used even though I probably shouldn't have taken the liberty.)

The market was a simple set of rooms, low shelves with canned and dry goods, a section with the usual fast-food junk, necessities like plates and charcoal, a few small bins of produce (cabbages, potatoes, onions, etc.) and a line of freezers along the wall. But the big draw was the meat counter in the back, a splendid array of every kind of quality meat, from rabbit (!) or herring or smoked fish to the (weird looking) bacon-wrapped chicken breasts to chicken, turkey, and beef jerky all the way to every possible iteration of the usual butcher items.

My favorites were the impossibly old-school bratwursts. When I started going there, there were only two or three varieties, but by the time I moved away from the neighborhood there were more than seven, including cheddar, wild rice, and apple. I'd buy a few and bring them to BBQs, and they would usually frighten people. Gigantic and squishy until you pre-boiled them, but almost every time, they converted all skeptics. "Where did you get these?" was the next question, and I'd try and probably fail to describe how to find the place. The breakfast sausage was also amazing, and the jerky was on a whole other level.

(I was so enamored with the jerky that I once told Jim about a "jerky tasting contest" that he might enter in Minneapolis. With typical humility, he deferred.)

For someone like me who rarely cooks meat and tends to shy away from it for environmental reasons, there was always  something mysterious and male about the meat counter, the invisible things that were happening in the back room, or the way that hunters would drop off deer into the back garage during hunting season.  For me, the butcher counter represented a link to a different era when people were more intimately acquainted with the conditions of their existence, when people knew how to skin, pluck, or debone things, before we entered our globalized era of convenient food, denuded from its materiality.

In other words, before the McNugget.

Jimmy's counter had a magic almost intimidating quality, which manifested in the self-conscious feeling I would get whenever I had to articulate my order. "A half dozen brats," was about the limits of my meat knowledge, my comfort level with the edible body. After a quick wrangling of sausages and their impossibly neat enclosure in the totemic white butcher paper, Jimmy would ask "anything else?" and the precipitous feeling of an entire world of meat opened up before me. How do people make beef stock? What's the difference between steaks? What the heck is that thing?

Here were men who not only knew all the minute differences, but created them out of the raw material. Magical timeless men with thick forearms gracefully confronting the seeming brutality of the American diet. With apologies to my vegetarian friends, Stasny's Meat Market was raw and beautiful, in its own way. I'd take it over the smooth polish of today's corporate grocery stores every time. Here, you escaped the slippery ease of consumerism. At least here, the butcher had a name.

So many old places that I've loved have disappeared. I suppose that's the way of the world, the march of time and entropy. Fires alone do their damage, as they did here, evaporating the organic palimpsest of a building overnight. A half mile to the West, the North End corner bar where I used to grade papers burned up last year. A half mile to the East, a fire gutted Mama's Pizza on Rice Street a few years back. Thankfully they had capital and conviction enough to rebuild.

But most places aren't so lucky, and new interiors, as nice as they are, cannot hope to replace the slow accumulation of character that preceded them. You can tell the same story for The Nook on Hamline, or Maxwell's on Washington over in Minneapolis, or a dozen other bars or stores that have burned over the years.

Elsewhere, it's the gradual economic obsolescence of aging, like with my barber Pete or Porky's Drive-In. And sometimes it's real estate forcing us to watch wonderful places vanish under the dollar's gun, as with twice-displaced Practical Goods or Nye's Polonaise Room, the most recent and extreme example.

What makes Stasny's loss a particular tragedy is that this butcher shop could have lasted for another hundred years. It had dedicated customers who came from all across the East metro for meat. Particularly ironic given its end, I'd often see a Saint Paul fire truck parked outside the shop, waiting as firefighters went in to pick up burgers or pork chops for the evening's grill.

And there was and is no fear of gentrification in the North End. If anything, the neighborhood has the opposite problem, a systematic lack of investment and economic opportunity that the loss of the key corner store is only going to make worse. Stasny's was the exception to the rest of the neighborhood, where so many shops had gone under, Stasny's Meat Market remained stable as rock.

And now it's gone. The terrible death of Stu, for whom kindness was synonymous with service, makes the whole thing a thousand times worse. He arrived just as I was moving away from the street. I can't add anything to the Facebook testimonials that I've seen on the neighborhood page. It's terribly sad.

I guess the first lesson is that we should be extra nice to the city fire inspector.

But the more important lesson is that everything is ephemeral, and we can't take our living history for granted. We should try harder to appreciate the places that connect us to our past, that compose the sense of place not merely in a memorial plaque, but in everyday life. The places like Mickey's or Al's or a hundred little bars, caf├ęs, or shops. These places can vanish in an instant, never to return.

I sometimes worry that we've become a culture that devalues its past, where the next new thing or the next cheapest thing inevitably trumps tradition and our weak social ties. The importance of the places and people that root us doesn't strike home until you lose something irreplaceable. Stasny's was that way for me, and today it's being bulldozed. If you lived in the North End, it breaks your heart.


Peter Henzler said...

I delivered bread here. I hope they rebuild I loved going there.

Anonymous said...

What an absolutely wonderful piece of writing. I am so grateful to you for having evoked with such skill the rawness of what Stasny's was able to offer. Thank you very much indeed.

Tommy Z said...

We just a bought a house, very near that corner. We haven't even moved in yet. While working on the house one day earlier this week, we made our first stop at Kamp's Grocery. As we were walking out, I said to my sweetie, "would you like to walk over to Stasny's too?" "Another day," she replied. I agreed. And that, of course, will sadly never happen.

Bob Roscoe said...

This beautifully written story has as much delightful and tasty ingredients as any of Stu and Stasny's sausages.

Sue K said...

Another sad loss to the Rice Street area. I went to school with one of the Stazny boys. The fellow and his family who lived upstairs is the head janitor at our church and now is homeless. I grew up on Rice street and grieve every time I go through there for the stores no longer there. Welches dry goods, Tschida's Bakery, Steiners Grocery and it goes on and on. It's a whole different world over there now.

Buzzygirl said...

This is so sad. I know Stasny's very well. My family didn't live in the North End neighborhood but my dad still drove to Stasny's for meat because he said it reminded him of the neighborhood butcher shops of his youth (which would have been the 1930s). I just drove along Western Avenue a couple weeks ago and saw Kamp's and Stasny's and it looked the same as it did when I was young.