Friday, July 19, 2024

Leo Carroll and his partner, Helen, at his Monday birthday party at S&S Restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

It’s probably safe to say that Leo Carroll has no rivals for the oldest memories of Inman Square. S&S Deli was only 5, after all, when Carroll’s mother delivered her third – and youngest – son at the family’s tenement home in what is now the deli’s overflow lot. That was June 22, 1924. Little else in the area remains the same.

On Monday, the restaurant – where else – is where Carroll celebrated turning 100. He knew weeks ago he planned to turn the tables on the gathered family and closest friends to toast them: “God bless [my kids] and my two grandchildren, and my beloved [partner] Helen of 35 years. I wouldn’t be here without them.”

The centenarian carried his memories to Cambridge City Hall last month when he and the jewelry store bearing his name were honored as part of the Cambridge Legacy Business Award program. Eighteen small businesses in all were recognized for 25-plus years in operation.

Leo Carroll Jewelers was among the oldest of this year’s class, a profoundly local business from the start reflecting the many years its owner has spent in and around Inman Square and the many relationships he has built. Tucked upstairs on the second floor of 1348 Cambridge St., Leo Carroll Jewelers opened its doors in 1948, when its namesake returned from serving in the Marine Corps during the World War II.

Carroll’s 100th-birthday cake on Monday at S&S Restaurant. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

Asked to reminisce recently, Carroll started with that childhood home in the square. “Times were tough in those days. Our rent was $7 a month. You can imagine what it was like. We didn’t have any bathrooms in that house … just a toilet in the hallway. But we didn’t mind. We grew up not knowing any better.” By the time he was 7, his mother, now widowed, moved the family down the street. “Better quarters with a bath,” Carroll said.

“I remember [Ma Edelstein, S&S founder] had a shop, a little deli across the street from today’s location,” Carroll said. “I remember going to that when I was little.” Years later, he frequented the business’ expanded location across the street, a favored hangout for locals. Carroll would meet his dates there, from his late teens on, always arriving dressed impeccably and, according to his son Sean, late.

“I went into the service [in 1940] at 18,” he said. “My brothers were already serving. In those days nobody I knew was drafted. We volunteered, you know? They were amazing times,” he sighed. Carroll recalled the honor associated with military service. “Once you were in uniform, if you were on the street, looking for rides, you just stepped off the curb and people would immediately stop and pick you up. That’s the way we traveled.”

A young Leo Carroll during the World War II era. (Photo: Carroll family)

He saw his most intense combat during the battle of Okinawa. “I had my 21st birthday in a foxhole,” he said almost casually, reluctant to share much more. “It was pretty brutal.”

“During the battle, there were hundreds, if not thousands of ships, even more than Normandy. There were ships as far as you could see. And the Japanese pilots were diving into the ships, you know, the suicide dive,” said Carroll, recalling that he didn’t realize his brother Phil was aboard one of the vessels – but when the dark moment passed, there was a moment of brightness. “All of a sudden, one day [Phil] showed up. He got a Jeep he borrowed from the ship, and he found his way across the island and asked where my company was,” Carroll said, more than a touch of wonder still in his voice. “We stayed up all night talking, and then he went back to his ship.”

After his discharge in 1946, Carroll returned home to Cambridge, living with his mother while he considered what to do for work. By process of elimination, he opted to go to trade school, paid for by the GI Bill to become “the only watchmaker around” at a time watches were scarce and needed repairs to keep going. 

“Those were good years from 1950 to 1970,” Carroll said today. “You couldn’t go wrong. Real estate was cheap.” And he still knew almost everyone around. “I knew everybody in the street, the grandmothers and the grandfathers and everybody by name. You don’t see that anymore,” he said. “Yeah, it was a very, very close neighborhood.”

Carroll had gone to S&S to talk with its owner at the time about how to translate his new skills into a business. “I loved Bill Wheeler. He was very helpful to me when I first started. He was very, very supportive. We used to sit at the bar and talk and he would encourage me quite a bit.” Little did he know he would open a shop next door to the legendary deli, one flight up, in just a matter of months – when Carroll went to find space for a store and those local connections paid off.

His first site was more of an office, a spot he got cheap thanks to the generosity of a local real estate owner, John Lynch. “I had $200 that I borrowed from a friend,” Carroll said. “Or he offered it to me. But I didn’t ask him for it. Lynch asked me where I banked and I had to tell him I didn’t have a bank. I had no money.” Other neighbors were equally supportive. “I had so many friends who were carpenters and all kinds of things, and they came and helped. Unbelievable. I never see that these days. I never asked them for help, but they knew what I was doing, and they came and did electrical work. I couldn’t pay them. They wouldn’t take a nickel. God love ’em. They were all terrific guys.” His cousins pitched in behind the newly built counters, as well – also unpaid. “After a short time, we started to make a profit, so I did pay them. But it was just amazing how much help I got getting started. I was lucky,” he glows.

The work shifted with trends in the local economy, from watch repair to small appliance distributor (back when Lechmere was a wholesale site for home appliances) and finally, thanks to an uncle who knew diamond brokers, to jewelry. Carroll’s competitive edge has remained the same: fair prices and highly personalized, high-quality service. As a seller of appliances and luggage, he “got all the police and the firemen who came in, and they were terrific. They got a little extra discount, sometimes just a matter of a couple of dollars, but I managed to do it.”

Leo Carroll Jewelers, seen in February 2020, is run mainly by Leo Carroll’s son Sean, and his wife Irene. (Photo: East Cambridge Business Association via social media)

While Carroll has stepped away from the counter – his youngest son, Sean, and wife Irene, took the reins many years ago – Leo Carroll Jewelers still enjoys a strong following among a wide array of municipal employees, longtime Cambridge residents and others who are persuaded by Yelp reviews such as: “The best!” “Super kind and reasonably priced. A hidden gem.” “Wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Carroll is proud of the reputation. “I like to think we were always honest. And we were always, always fair.” Any comments to the contrary gnaw at him, like one recent complaint on Yelp about a repair job. It was busy and there was a misunderstanding, Carroll said. They offered to fix it but “the guy took it the wrong way and gave a bad review,” he groaned, still upset at the memory.

Seventy-six years in business. One hundred years old. And still, Carroll claims there is no secret to his successes. “I’ve always, always had a good time,” he said. “I always took time out to have fun.”