In the business of staying sober
Winter on Block Island may serve at times as a metaphor for those troubles and difficulties that punctuate most of our lives. As fall gives way, dissolving into shortened days and longer nights, we are thrown back upon ourselves — upon our own resources— to help us survive the darkest season. For many it is an arduous voyage. Others find ways to light up the darkness.
In just this way, as quiet settles over Water Street and as wreaths and the lobster pot tree mark the arrival of the holidays in town, some things are different this year: The darkness is splintered and the lights are on at Mahoney’s Clothiers. The “We Are Open” sign is on the door and the remarkable Ruth Elizabeth Mahoney is behind the counter.
Or she is climbing a ladder to take down stock, or merchandising or waiting on customers who cross her threshold in a steady stream. She is focusing her boundless creative energy into extending the shopping season on the island — no mean feat.
The store’s owner is Mahoney’s son, Jay Pinney, who has had a home on the island for more than 30 years. She says he began coming out to the island as a youngster visiting friends, and introduced her to the island.
From Providence bistro to island clothiers
Mahoney herself is no stranger to retail business, having been the creator and owner of the popular Providence bistro, L’Elizabeth’s. Located on South Main Street in the 1970s, it was the first such establishment to serve fine coffees and pastries. “At the time there was no Starbucks,” she says.
Nostalgically, Mahoney describes the décor as having been highlighted by “very, very elegant furniture.” These were described in a 2008 article in the Brown Daily Herald, as “plush couches, overstuffed chairs and delicate settees… The furniture [is] positioned so… a party can sit … and enjoy an intimate conversation …”
Mahoney adds, “It was elegant but homey.”
Because her business was close to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), many faculty and staff who frequented L’Elizabeth’s were impressed by her design concepts and asked her where she had trained. “They were amazed at what I’d done. They wanted to know how I knew about doing appointments within very small spaces, which is all that I had,” she says.
She admits at the time she didn’t know what ‘appointments” were, but quickly notes that, though without formal training, she has always had a “great sense of order and great organizational skills.” She adds, “The visual to me was always very important.”
Mahoney points out that New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was the owner of several buildings in the area and was her landlord. “I was the first to lease from him, and when he saw what I designed, he was amazed,” she says. He had been encouraged by John Nicholas Brown to restore property on the lower East Side of Providence.
She was soon followed by other businesses, adding to the revitalization of the district, which gives her great pleasure as she looks back.
Let’s go to L’Elizabeth’s
She explains with pride, “L’Elizabeth’s was written up in The New York Times [described as] “a place where matters of substance were discussed.” With not just RISD in her neighborhood, but Brown, as well, she says, “Parents would tell their kids about us, and kids would tell their parents. We were a great asset to the city; people would say, ‘Let’s go to L’Elizabeth’s.’ “
At the same time, she is even more proud to recall her involvement “in getting an old building for substance abuse meetings — non-federally funded.” She was “able to get a building from the [Catholic] Diocese [in Providence] for the sole purpose of running substance abuse meetings that would be open to the public.” In the end, the gatherings would be supported by the participants who “would pass the hat.”
Mahoney’s interest in substance abuse began with her own experiences. She was an alcoholic for many years, explaining, “From teenage on, I didn’t handle alcohol well.” Along what she describes as her “journey,” she says, “I don’t know when the floor show stopped and the therapy began.”
Preferring not to dwell on periods of addiction, Mahoney looks at her life as starting over from her first moments of attending substance abuse meetings in the late 1960s. Over those years, she notes she was amazed to discover that “recovery could take place just by listening to other members.” She concedes it wasn’t easy, but she discovered that she and the other participants became a support system for each other.
Alcohol dramatizes and distorts
In recovery, Mahoney says, “I started to realize that drinking only polished up issues and troubles. I learned that alcohol dramatizes and distorts, making things more grandiose than they are. While in recovery, you find yourself. You have a shot at putting your demons to rest.” She adds, “Recovery can be endangered by not letting go of the past.”
Mahoney credits L’Elizabeth’s and the work she was able to do in the community with helping her stay sober for the last 46 years. She explains, “I always thought that was my biggest achievement. The god of my understanding gave me L’Elizabeth’s in order to help me do other things.”
When the new warden of the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) stopped in at L’Elizabeth’s, Mahoney says, “We got speaking about why there were no substance abuse groups for women in prison.” After further discussion, Mahoney began bringing these meeting into the women’s division of the prison.
She notes the purpose of the meetings was “to give people information and choices.” She adds, “I’ve always thought that L’Elizabeth’s was part of God’s plan for me, for it gave me a lot of credibility. I was not just another do-gooder, for two days a week I showed up with speakers; I did so for seven years.”
However, after 42 years of running L’Elizabeth’s, it came time to make a transition, Mahoney felt. Subsequently, one Sunday morning three years ago, Mahoney called her son Jay and said, “I like getting up early. I can come out and open early and help run the business.”
Noting she had begun divesting herself of L’Elizabeth’s, she found herself utterly surprised when her son said, ‘Yes, come on out.’” She says, “Three hours later I was here.” Moving in with Jay, Mahoney has settled into to living here “really for the very first time.”
She says, “I feel I’m really getting to know people and discovering it’s a rich community — people with all kinds of interests, talents and backgrounds. There’s a lot here.”
Mahoney says she admires the Harbor Church, which has “for years opened its doors to those who needed to participate in substance abuse meetings.”
Sporting her own very diverse resume, Mahoney is also an interior designer, through which skills she offers “a face lift” for home or business spaces. She is still available for consultation: in “interior design, home space re-organization, best use of existing pieces and discovery of your own aesthetic.” In addition, Mahoney says, “I am a writer. I write vignettes based upon the experiences I’ve had.”
She says if she were to propose a title for a story about her life, it would derive from her struggles to overcome alcoholism through her own creative efforts; her title would be “In the business of Staying Sober.” She explains, “Although I have achieved much creatively in business and other endeavors, I have discovered that my primary business is staying sober.”
This year, there will continue to be a bright spot lighting up the darkness on Water Street as Mahoney’s remains open throughout the winter months — daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.