Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist

Montavilla Is Mourning

Montavilla’s heart is broken. Two stalwarts of our community, Mel Hafsos and Errol Carlson, who operated the Taylor Court Grocery for 25 years, are no more. Death took Mel a few days ago, while Dementia overcame Errol, his business and life partner.

The Taylor Court Grocery, over 100 years old (though by different names), is one of a handful of once thriving neighborhood groceries that still remain. In their heyday — before the big chains — Portlanders were served by 800 such stores. Mostly, first and second generation immigrants owned the store before Mel and Errol bought it in 1996. At one historical point, the neighborhood was called Swedeville.

Mel and Errol were truly the heart of our little community. They operated the grocery themselves, often working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. On Halloween, they kept the store open in the evening and gave out candy to small ghosts and goblins. For the Fourth of July, they organized a block party and a parade. I’ve read that they crowned a queen who had to be at least 80 years old (some accounts say 75) and to have lived in the neighborhood for 50 (some say 25) years. We missed those events, having moved into the neighborhood eight years ago, when Mel and Errol were slowing down.

But we were here for the grocery’s last years where a visit to the little store (filled to the rafters with organic and natural foods, as well as Ben & Jerry’s) was welcomed by Errol behind the cash register and Mel managing the inventory. Errol always exchanged a pleasantry and made teasing, light-hearted comments about your purchase, the weather, the neighborhood, or another timely topic. Kids, young and old, looked forward to buying their special treats from the candy aisle or the ice cream freezer. Mel and Errol and the store were truly the heart of the neighborhood.

Walking by one day a couple years back, we found a Closed sign on the door. It wasn’t Sunday or Monday, regular closing days. We worried, then learned that Errol had had a heart attack. Both men were in their seventies. Neighbors posted Get Well wishes on the windows and door: “We appreciate your service to the community;” “We love you and miss you. Your Montavilla neighbors and friends.” When Mel took the notes to the hospital to share with Errol, both men wept. Within a short while, the Closed sign flipped to Open. They were back in business and the neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief.

Perhaps it was another year before they put up a For Sale sign, causing consternation throughout the community. Yet we knew it was time. They both deserved a less harried retirement. Still, the store remained open. It seemed the only people interested in buying it were developers who intended to tear the store down and put in a three-story apartment building or a couple of those modern houses that look like they have garages in their living rooms.

And then the pandemic hit. Somehow, though people were afraid to go into shops and be around others, Mel and Errol kept the store open for a couple months before they regretfully had to shut it down and eventually remove the inventory. Notes went up: “Thank you for many good years of service to our community.” “We love you and will miss you.”

Mel and Errol lived just up the street. We saw them around. Someone invited them to our Sunday evening sing-a-longs in honor of front line workers. They graciously declined. It was too much. We continued to see them in the neighborhood until a few days ago. Then, at last Sunday’s sing, two of the neighbors passed along the sad news. Mel had died. Errol was in a care facility. An era had passed.

Signs went up once more:

We love you, Mel & Errol! For a generation you made dreams possible in our neighborhood. With your Kindness and 4th of July parade, drawing a chalk star at the 4th of July Festival, and Halloween extravagances - you made the heart of this Neighborhood. You made memories — precious memories — possible for us. Walking to Taylor Court Grocery with Rose to get an ice cream, dressing up for Halloween and taking our daughter through the store to get candy, and always . . . always your kindness. You are wrapped in angels’ wings. Bless you forever, Tim, Melinda, and Rose

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We will miss you Mel. You and Errol have touched so many lives in this community! Blessings to you on your next Journey. The Bridger Family

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Dear Errol & Mel, Thank you for all you’ve done for our community.Your store gave us cool treats on summer walks, kept us stocked during snow storms and gave us somewhere fun to trick or treat. We will miss your kindness and hospitality. We appreciate you and wish you all the best. Love, Jennifer, Seth, Light and Aurora (The Bestulic Family)

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As I get older or maybe it’s the incurable disease that I live with or the growing number of friends and family who are no more, I find myself anticipating the next loss, fearing it. Kinda inhibits the “live for today” philosophy. I just don’t like surprises. I like to be prepared emotionally, though I know that’s impossible. Losing Mel and Errol disrupted my sense of community. This little corner of the world will never be the same. The Taylor Court Market slips into history along with two lovely gay men.