Part business, part family, part history — walking into Bill’s Food Shop is like stepping onto a 1950s TV set. It seems to be frozen, with artifacts carefully curated over time. After all, Bill’s Food Shop, located at the intersection of Conwell Avenue and Hillsdale Road, has been central to the West Somerville community for 62 years.
Many Tufts students discover Bill’s later in their college career: In a survey the Daily conducted of 71 Tufts students, only 16.9% of students knew of Bill’s. Jack Eddy said that he first encountered the quaint shop in the fall of his junior year.
“It’s an interesting spot because the outside of it is covered with old ’80s cigarette ads which of course, you never see … It’s a relic in a wonderful way,” Eddy, a senior, said.
Lena Novins-Montague discovered Bill’s this past summer with her friend.
“After [my friend and I] realized Bill’s wasn’t out of business, I could tell from the outside that it was quirky and retro because it has all these old ads on the outside,” Novins-Montague, a senior, said.
Inside Bill’s, a wall dedicated to a sea of retro candies sits to the right of the entrance, offering Dubble Bubble, Charleston Chews, Hubba Bubba and more. The store is sprinkled with cultural and personal mementos from the past, including a poster of Marilyn Monroe, a framed story stating “Mom and Pop still alive and well in Somerville” and family photos. Tufts is also represented in its decor, with a felted banner suspended on a cabinet and a “Welcome Jumbo” poster depicting a late 19th century drawing from Tufts’ archives.
Somerville native and store owner Frank DiFonzo said that he came from the other side of town with his father to open up this shop in the late 1950s, when he was only 21 years old. He’s stayed in the area ever since, and his wife of 58 years is involved in the business as well.
“College is great, people in the area are nice. Years ago, we had a lot of kids, and they’d do damage — not all of them,” DiFonzo said. “My own three kids grew up here, all engineers; one went to Tufts and the other two went to Northeastern. They got good jobs for themselves.”
Bill’s Food Shop used to be one of many on Conwell Avenue, including Conwell Ave. Market, which sold beer, wine and groceries; now, Bill’s Food Shop is the only store left. DiFonzo had noted that the population that they have observed around their shop has changed over time. It went from being known as “Slummerville” to becoming one of America’s 100 best places to live in, and Bill’s has been through it all.
“Oh, [the neighborhood] has changed a lot. Years ago, we had all kinds of families with kids and now they’re all young working people or students,” DiFonzo said.
Students describe Bill’s as feeling welcoming and community-oriented.
“What I like about Bill’s is that it is very homey, and it reminds me of my hometown grocery store but in Medford,” first-year Elysse Karozichian said.
Novins-Montague said that she once was in a rush to do her laundry before a trip and was out of quarters, so she went to Bill’s, which only accepts cash.
“I bought something and asked for change in quarters, and [DiFonzo] asked how many quarters I needed, and I said about 10, and without saying anything, he reached [into] his cash register and pulled out an entire roll of quarters in addition to my change,” Novins-Montague said. “He said, ‘Whenever you need quarters, you can always come in here, I know it’s hard being away from home.’ It was one of those things that you didn’t expect someone to be so randomly nice, and he was so lovely.”
“Come on in for a one-dollar slushy or even just a friendly conversation,” the store’s website states. “We are happy to serve you in a jiffy!”
While Somerville may have changed over the years, one sentiment remains constant: Bill’s Food Shop has a niche following from Tufts students who have discovered it and value Bill’s for its convenience and location.
“They have some of the produce you need, and honestly, if you live by Bill’s, it’s blocks before you find an option for groceries or other items except for this one, random shop in the middle of homes that is Bill’s,” Eddy said. “[It’s] this one island of convenience.”
Locals can go to Bill’s to grab last-minute items like paper towels or to satisfy cravings with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Core ice cream.
“We’re unique because we’re here seven days a week,” said DiFonzo.
Karozichian noted Bill’s reliability as a long-standing business.
“I think Bill’s has stayed around for so long because it’s the neighbor that you can count on to borrow things from if you run out — but in a shop,” Karozichian said. “It’s quick and convenient, and it’s run by people who have been in the neighborhood for a long time, so it’s trustworthy and good to support them.”
Students attribute many characteristics to Bill’s Food Shop’s appeal. Yet when DiFonzo was asked what the best part of his shop is, his answer was short and sweet: “Candy.”