“Let’s sit down in my office,” says Giuseppe Giangregorio after agreeing to my impromptu request for an interview. We do sit down — on two small folding chairs he keeps between two of the many shelves in his Green Cross Pharmacy. That’s when I realize there is no office. Instead, we are sitting in a corner of the store he and his brother Fernando have owned for the last fifty years, strategically located on Hanover street, the North End’s main thoroughfare. Across the street is the Prado, the pedestrian area connecting the iconic statue of Paul Revere and the even more iconic Old North Church, the starting point of his legendary midnight ride.
Our interview setting is just as strategic: from that position — between shelves with non-prescription drugs and toiletries, a rack of impossible-to-find Italian magazines against one window and another one overflowing with Italian gadgets and Boston souvenirs on the other side – Giangregorio at the same time keeps an eye on the sales counter, the entrance door, and the road outside, all while talking to me. Clearly, he has done this before: after all, he began multitasking way before the term was even invented.
“We started helping out, here, in the afternoon, while in the morning we went to high school, first, and to college, later,” says Giangregorio, who is commonly referred to as Peppino. “At the time, many pharmacies featured so-called ‘soda fountains’ — basically luncheonettes where you could get coffee and sandwiches: this one, at the time owned by an Italian man and already well established, was no exception: the counter was here, along this wall, and that’s where we worked,” he recalls, pointing at the side of the store where the magazine rack now stands.
He speaks in the plural, not for some sort of self aggrandizing pluralis majestatis, but rather because Giangregorio has lived his entire life – both personal and professional – alongside his younger brother Fernando, who remains behind the counter but carefully follows the entire interview. Every now and then, he underlines Giuseppe’s statements with clarifying, at times even funny, comments.
“We bought the place in 1964, after we got our college degrees in pharmaceutical science,” continues Giuseppe Giangregorio. “Since we both had full-time jobs in different hospitals we would take turns at the pharmacy: one would work the morning shift and run the place in the evening and the other would do the opposite. We basically had 14-16 hours workdays.”
Yet the Giangregorios, like many Italians of their generation, were used to hardship: Giuseppe – a World War II war orphan — still vividly remembers the times in his native Benevento when his mother had to line up for daily rations of bread or those, a few years later, when he had to walk, daily, from home to the train station, then from the train station to school — and back — for a total of about seven miles.
Coming to the United States in 1954, where some of his mother’s relatives already lived, was definitely an improvement, exception made for the first few months. “When we arrived – around Christmas time snow was up to our waist,” he recalls in detail, “and although I was promised I could go to school I found himself working in a shoe factory, where my hands would turn black with splinters from the drying wooden shelves. By the fall, however, we managed to get enrolled in high school and things soon took a turn for the better.”
But integration for the Giangregorio brothers was not an easy task. “In the mid-1950s, we were basically the first Italians in the North End – at least the first ones ‘off the boat’,” continues the soft-spoken, somewhat slow-moving 77 year-old pharmacist whose memory – and wit – seems to brilliantly withstand the passing of time. “I mean, this neighborhood was entirely Italian at the time, but the kids our age were all born here and, believe it or not, they were the ones giving us the hardest time.”
Soon the Giangregorios decided to react to both ‘Waspy’ and ‘self-loathing’ discrimination by actively doing something about it.
In 1957, with the help of the local priest, they transformed the dismissed area of what is today St. John’s School into Boston’s first Azione Cattolica chapter, a church-sponsored Italian social club that for over 20 years served as a point of reference to the few Italians already here, as well as to the many more who came with the latest great immigration wave in the early and mid-1960s. “At the beginning it was just for young men, but over time their families started to come too: we got to a point where, especially on holidays after mass, it got so packed we could barley fit,” recalls Giangregorio with a touch of nostalgia.
Although Giangregorio has been back to Italy only four times since then (but says he still dreams of being there every night), his commitment to fostering and promoting all things Italian (including Incontro, a newspaper he put together for almost 40 years) has been relentless, and, most of all, uninterrupted. This dedication has been acknowledged by both the Italian government and local associations over the years. In Italy, Giangregorio has been awarded the titles of Cavaliere, Cavaliere Ufficiale and Commendatore. Locally, the local community has bestowed upon him a number of awards, including the 2015 “I Migliori in Mens et Gesta” award from the Pirandello Lyceum. Yet, his list of ‘patriotic’ accomplishments is as impressive as his modesty in talking about it: “I never asked for medals or prizes,” he says, speaking even softer than he usually does. “Someone either recommended me or schmoozed me into it!”
In fact it all started, and continues to happen, here, in his Green Cross Pharmacy, which he and his brother bought half a century ago amidst fierce competition from at least six other similar businesses in the neighborhood) and against all odds. “The boys will last six months” was, according to Giangregorio, the most common comment after they first opened.
Proving those comments wrong, the Giangregorios have spent a good part of the last 60 years in the North End, becoming the “only game in town” as far as pharmacies are concerned (until a CVS opened on the other end of Hanover street). Furthermore, Green Cross Pharmacy has become a point of reference for Italian as well as the increasingly numerous non-Italian residents of the neighborhood. Day in and day out, first from behind the luncheonette counter, then from the pharmacy, Peppino and Fernando Giangregorio have served, greeted, and socialized with thousands of customers and passersby: from entire families, who generation after generation relied on the Giangregorios for both health and information; to tourists visiting America’s birthplace in search of souvenirs; all the way to young professionals and students, currently representing the majority of Northenders, who quickly stop by to pick up aspirin or shaving cream. They have a word for all of their customers: those who they know (most of them it seems) and those who they don’t. In fact, our interview was interrupted at least four times by people who came into Peppino’s “office” to talk to him or simply say “hi”.
“In the past it was better,” sighs Giangregorio, as he gets up from the small chair, folds it, puts it back between the souvenir and magazine racks. “Nowadays people are not as talkative as they used to be,” he concludes while heading back to the counter to rejoin his brother at work. “But I keep trying!”