This morning, I received word that Emma Conn Harwell had died on Sunday, June 14th, at the age of 91.
Mrs. Harwell probably never remembered me, because she had so many loyal customers who cherished Conn's, the Shorter Avenue store that she and her family ran from the time I moved to Rome until the store was destroyed in a fire (I don't know when the store first opened; the earliest Rome phone book I have is 1953, and it contains an ad for "Shorter Avenue Super Market—J.W. Conn, proprietor," so Conn's was a part of West Rome long before there was a West Rome High School). Was there anyone who lived in West Rome at that time who didn't consider Conn's a vital part of the community, a retail landmark?
Conn's was important to me because it had the best selection of comic books in West Rome. When most stores had one spinner rack, Conn's had two, and they were both filled with new release comics. If you couldn't find a comic anywhere else, Conn's was the place to go. The racks were located deep in the shop, so any trip to Conn's in search of comics took me past the shelves of snacks and candies and groceries.
And the bakery.
Never in my decades on this earth have I known a bakery like Conn's. Cakes, cookies, fritters, cupcakes--they had it all. But Conn's bakery was legendary for two things: doughnuts and brownies.
Krispy Kreme may be praised nowadays as the number one shop for soft, rich, sweet, robustly flavored doughnuts with just the right touch of icing--but that's only because Conn's bakery is no longer competing with them. Those doughnuts were melt-in-your-mouth soft, without the least touch of the breadiness that passes for doughnuts at so many shops today. The icing hardened to a lightly crystalline glazing that melted slightly at fingertip temperature, leaving just the right touch of sweet stickiness when you picked one up. It was the best doughnut ever.
If there was anything that could compete with them, it was Conn's brownies. They were dense and chocolatey and rich, but not heavy or gummy. the fudge icing on the top added an intense chocolate creaminess to each bite. If you like chocolate, you would have loved Conn's brownies. If you don't like chocolate... well, it's obvious that you weren't lucky enough to have tasted Conn's brownies.
Conn's was the last of the true neighborhood family-owned groceries. The staff at Conn's may not have known my name, but they recognized my face--not a surprise, considering how often I was in there!--and treated me like a welcome guest. Sometimes, they'd even throw an extra doughnut or brownie in the bag when I made a purchase, just because that's how nice they were. And if a was a penny or two short for my comics purchase, Mrs. Harwell would tell me to bring it in the next time. And I did, because she had shown trust in a kid to do the right thing and I didn't want to let her down.
And my parents loved to go there. Dad would talk sports with people in Conn's almost every time he went there--and sooner or late, the conversation would always turn to West Rome High School. It was a comfortable, inviting store that encouraged people to talk... a place where you felt welcome.
Conn's was just a few hundred yards east of the office of Dr. Cromartie, my family dentist. Showing the sort of bad judgment that only a child could make, I would end any trip to the dentist--whether for a routine cleaning or a filling--with a walk to Conn's, where I would reward myself with a brownie or a doughnut... or both. Even if one side of mouth was numb from Novocaine, I could enjoy the taste on the other side of my mouth!...
Long after Susan and I were married and I had moved away from Rome, we would stop by Conn's when we visited my parents. And when I saw the news that the store had burned down, I felt like a vital part of my youth had been destroyed with it. I loved the store, thanks to the people who put their hearts into making it more than just a place where you bought things.
I know the family of Mrs. Harwell are mourning her loss now, but I hope they can find some solace in the knowledge that she made West Rome a better place for all of us who lived there. Thanks, Mrs. Harwell!