The Nov. 11, 2021 death of Helene Guerin Lyons, a former Provincetown shopkeeper who was known as Nini, was reported last week by her niece Tracy Shupp. Nini was 88. The delay in reporting was the result of pandemic-related restrictions on planning a memorial service, said Shupp.
Born in Brockton to Helene and Henry F. Lyons, Nini was the eldest of five children. She studied retail management at Simmons College and literature at NYU. In 1949, at 15, she began working summers at the Flagship Restaurant in Provincetown. She toured a still-ruined Europe in 1956 with her sister Denise, then taught English and history at Easton High School in Aroostook County, Maine. She also worked at the Poland Spring Job Corps Center for Women in Maine and was heartbroken when the Nixon administration closed the program in 1969.
She spent weekends and summers in Provincetown at her small shop, Remembrances of Things Past, at 276 Commercial St. She called Provincetown “the most beautiful place in the world.” After recovering from a serious car accident at Race Point in 1971, she moved to Provincetown year-round in 1975 and lived here and in Truro until the end of her life.
Nini came early to retail, opening her first shop in a chicken coop in her backyard and selling candies, chewing gum, and cool drinks. Possibly influenced by her maternal grandmother, a purveyor of fine lingerie at Madame Gaudette in Brockton, she was not swayed by the advice of a Simmons professor who told her to “buy for the masses and not for yourself and never become too specialized.” She operated her store for 40 years on the opposite principle.
Living upstairs with her white rat, Sylvester, and her dog, Carrie, she filled the shop with what she loved most, specializing in Coca-Cola advertising signage from the ’20s and ’30s, neon, Bakelite jewelry, Betty Boop paraphernalia, early Red Sox photos, stained glass, celebrity posters, and early telephones. Although she enjoyed business dealings, her real affection was for the objects and images themselves, their history, and their makers.
An accomplished portrait photographer and daughter of a painter, Nini loved visual art, theater, and literature. She devoted fierce attention to artists and their work. Her walls were filled with the work of friends and acquaintances and her side tables with marked-up copies of friends’ poems, essays, stories, and plays. She was devoted to Tennessee Williams, Dennis Dermody, Jane Chambers, Keith Althaus, John Waters, Peter Frawley, Susan Baker, Phyllis Campbell, Avis Johnson, and Carson McCullers.
At the dramatic high point of McCullers’s novel The Member of the Wedding, its protagonist, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy named Frankie, throws herself into the car of her brother and his bride, begging them to take her with them; she has convinced herself that they are “the we of me.” This was a revelation to Nini, helping her to understand her own identity as an outsider to conventional life.
In Provincetown, which she referred to as Heaven, Nini found a community of artists and friends who appreciated the offbeat, the dark, the outrageous, the dissolute, the ornery, the beautiful, the honkytonk, the tragic, the Yankee stoic — for her, “the we of me.”
She is survived by her sisters, Denise Lyons and Christina Lyons; her nieces and nephews, Kathleen Murray, Tracy Shupp, Ben Shupp, Hannah Dexter, Zoe Dexter, and Lea LiDrazzah; her “godson,” Nicholas Nisbit; and many grand-nieces and -nephews.
Nini was predeceased by her brothers Terence and John Lyons and her niece Faith Dexter.
A celebration of her life was held on Sept. 24 at the Provincetown Commons.