“What everyone really wanted here was a greasy Spoon,” said Helen Wells, owner of Jolly’s British Foods & Good Grub Groceries, a specialty foods store on Route 212 midway between Saugerties and Woodstock.
“But I sell hot coffee, wrapped sandwiches, and lots of British, Irish, Indian and organic foods you simply cannot get anywhere else,” said Wells, an even-tempered if occasionally crusty “career merchant” who’s led a fascinating life across several continents.
In the late-sixties, Wells, the tall, lanky daughter of Cumberland bureaucrat, lived and worked on an Israeli kibbutz, or communal farm.
Next, in an early entrepreneurial endeavor, Helen found someone who wanted a bus driven from London to India, and came up with the idea to sell passenger tickets. Picking up additional riders in Amsterdam, Helen and her business partner at the time wound up driving 44 people to Istanbul and finally India.
Helen’s bus adventure was itself iconic in that era portrayed so vividly by American writer Ken Kesey, for whom the phrase “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus” became a metaphor for his traveling entourage, The Merry Pranksters, who briefly lived in Millbrook at about the same time. Although Pete Townshend of The Who actually wrote “Magic Bus” earlier, it was first recorded in 1968 and became part of the British band’s regular concert set in 1971. To some, the song gained traction in part because it seemed to be about Helen’s Magic Bus.
Wells came to New York in 1974 and began making lots of money dealing antiques, eventually becoming quite wealthy. The terror attacks of 9/11 destroyed both her Italian designer furniture business, called Modern Age, as well as her luxury high-rise apartment in lower Manhattan.
“What had been the best location on September 10th was the worst on September 12th,” Wells explained.
She watched the disaster unfold on television from her weekend place in New Baltimore, an art-filled compound Wells sold in 2005 for the highest price paid for a property in Greene County that year. Helen has owned various places upstate since 1986.
Wells and her de facto wife of more than a decade, Lucinda Wells, a former barrister (defense attorney in the British legal system) who is also English by birth, bought the retail center in which Jolly’s is located in 2006. They live above the store with three dogs, a parrot and a cat. Lucinda, a friendly blond from London’s East End, works for Petwatch, a pet care services company.
“Lulu wanted this place so that’s what we did,” said Helen, who handles day-to-day store operations. Running the small grocery store and being a commercial property landlord in a weak economy are demanding enough occupations for Helen at age 64. She also doubts she’d see a return on the $24,000 septic-system upgrade required to open a restaurant at the site.
While no greasy spoon, Jolly’s does sell a wide enough variety of ready-to-eat snacks, treats and light meals that one need not leave hungry, and there are tables and chairs outside.
“We have the best chicken curry sandwiches in the area, $4.25 plus tax,” said Helen, mentioning the store’s best-selling variety. Jolly’s also sells everything else one might want to buy along with sandwiches and meat pies, except lottery tickets, cigarettes and beer.
“I just don’t. It’s not what I want to do,” said Helen, who doesn’t drink alcohol.
‘It’s all in the buying’
“This is just an amazing unique store,” said Gaige Clark, a regular customer who lives nearby. Clark, the owner of Spruce, a chic flower shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea neigborhood, has been shopping at Jolly’s since it opened, when she still commuted to the area from the city.
“It’s all in the buying. That’s what makes (Jolly’s) fun,” said Clark.
Gaige, who has become a personal friend of Helen and Lucinda, said shopping at Jolly’s exposes her to products she really enjoys that she did not know existed. Financially secure but not very materialistic, Gaige, like all humans, enjoys delicious food. She’s especially open to trying things Helen suggests.
“I really enjoy serving these foods to my friends and family,” the Massachusetts native said.
Food-wise, Gaige thinks the people she most often entertains at her home in the area might be a “little sheltered,” and it’s fun to expand their epicurean horizons. She doesn’t mind paying a little bit more for typically smaller packages of items such as cookies – at Jolly’s, they’re called biscuits – because Helen won’t sell food she herself doesn’t find unusually delicious. The British brands Jolly’s carries also use sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener Wells regards with knowing disdain.
Wells is particularly proud of Jolly’s selection of biscuits. Many of the brands she carries happen to be vegan, a distinction which matters greatly to some customers. The manufacturers simply don’t feel the need to add animal products wantonly to the ingredients.
“Quite a lot of the packages have Arabic writing on them,” said Wells. “These are British brands you can find all over the world, except in America, where it seem there are only three kinds of cookies – Fig Newtons, chocolate chip, and Oreos,” said Helen.
The single best-selling item in the store is tea, perhaps not surprising for a British-themed grocery. Jolly’s sells a great deal of the Barry’s brand, which begins at $7.98 for a large box. Taylor’s, a pricier make, also flies off the shelves.
“This is real tea. It actually turns the water brown, not some anemic tan,” said Helen.
In British culture, to have a “bit of a tea” really means to have a snack served with the world’s most popular beverage. It’s perhaps most traditionally paired with toast and marmalade, for which there is a consumption protocol, Wells explains.
“Real marmalade is made with Seville oranges and slightly tart,” said Wells. One normally eats it by breaking up a piece of toast, next individually lathered with butter and marmalade, and then it’s all appreciatively savored in small bites.
One famous marmalade brand Jolly’s carries is Dundee, $8.20, which the archetypal British statesman Winston Churchill ate almost every day of his life. Jolly’s also carries an array of other premium sweetened fruit spreads which are technically jams. These are but a few of the finer points of food and culture in which Helen will happily educate you if queried.
British pub grub is no joke
Given the terrible quality but huge servings of American convenience food, the very old jokes about British food being about like French beer and Italian administration no longer apply.
Take chocolates, for example. Jolly’s only carries British-made Cadbury chocolate confections, because they’re made with “real sugar and cocoa,” said Wells. Cadbury Flake, a crumbly air-whipped candy bar, costs $1.75, and has many local devotees.
Jolly’s also carries Kerrygold butter, cheese, and clotted cream, which come from Ireland, and cost a bit more. But these dairy products are also more genuine, natural and traditional, and therefore more satisfying to eat, so perhaps one consumes fewer calories.
Among the hundreds of classic British and Irish brands and products Jolly’s carries, perhaps the most famous is Marmite, a yeast spread which people either loathe or to which they become “hopelessly addicted,” laughs Wells. A byproduct of beer-making, hard-to-find Marmite’s been popular with savvy American vegetarians for years, because it’s intense taste makes a rich dark broth and also adds a meat-like and nutritious flavor dimension to sandwiches prepared at home.
Wrapped sandwiches at Jolly’s aren’t huge but they’re relatively inexpensive and different from what’s sold at American delis. Here, both the tuna salad and the chicken salad are made with vinegar. Branston pickle, a relish made by Crosse & Blackwell, is served with aged cheddar. This typically British cold cheese sandwich appeals to expatriate Brits or Americans who developed a taste for it while traveling or living abroad.
Customer Stephen Beer, a graphics designer who lives in Milan, said it was perhaps only the third time he’d stopped by Jolly’s for lunch, but he was attracted by the Union Jack flown outside. Beer professes to a fondness for many things British, especially cars. At present, he’s restoring two vintage Jaguars, and also owns a left-hand drive 1947 Rover, probably the only one in the U.S.
“It’s that kidney thing that freaks me out,” said Beer, looking at the meat pies on offer at Jolly’s this day. “But do you have any mushy peas?” he joked. He settled on a banger, or sausage, sandwich, and a chilled Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade, $2.70 with tax and bottle deposit.
“I like this place because it’s cool,” he said, echoing the phrase now heard so often in conjunction with the town of Saugerties.
Given the many remarkable twists and turns of her life thus far, Helen’s reluctant to prognosticate too much about her own future. But although she wakes up every morning still feeling much like she did driving the Magic Bus, her body’s beginning to communicate its age.
“I’ll probably retire from running the store in a couple of years,” she said. “But I’ll never really retire. Perhaps I’ll take up restoring Italian sports cars,” said Wells.