Tigger, an unassuming tabby who reigned over Giovanni’s Market near Northeastern’s Boston campus, was not orange. He wasn’t bouncy, pouncy, flouncy, or trouncy like his namesake, a spring-tailed fictional tiger from the “Winnie the Pooh” children’s series.
But for 22 years, Tigger assisted his warm, welcoming owner, John Nehme, in charming generations of Northeastern students, staff and Columbus Avenue neighbors who had ducked into the corner store for a snack and sometimes walked out with a valued friendship. The bodega cat died earlier this year of kidney failure — but his memory lives on as a friendly character who helped make Giovanni’s a welcoming oasis from daily stresses. Tigger was adopted vicariously by the diverse Giovanni’s clientele, and it says something about both the pet and his owner that Tigger’s memory lives on.
“I think it’s clear that both the man and his cat hold a special place in a lot of Northeastern students’ hearts,” says Hayes Zierden, who starts the third year of his politics, philosophy and economics major in the fall. “I’ve seen people stop by Giovanni’s before just to say ‘Hi,’ to Tigger.”
Jacob Marx, going into his third year as a civil engineering major, says the feline “has been a very bright spot during my darker days. If I’m grinding through classes or something or if I’m just not having the best day, just going over to Gio’s and seeing Tigger on the counter or chill on the floor always brought some light to my day.”
Nehme seems to have embraced his place in the pecking order. Tigger started living at the convenience store only months after Nehme bought the cramped space on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Camden Street in 2001. He’s kept the many photos, drawings, and a painting of Tigger displayed in the store, but it took the store owner months to get rid of the tabby’s bed.
“It was really hard for the first few weeks,” says Nehme. “I just told people that he was in the back, because at one point I tried to tell a customer and I got choked up.”
As a young cat, Tigger would stalk unsuspecting customers, pouncing on them as they reached the end of an aisle.
“I lost a few customers that way,” Nehme says.
Most came back. One who didn’t was the owner of a great Dane who had an unfortunate run-in with Tigger. The dog had jumped onto the check-out counter for a treat. Tigger thought the hound was lunging for John and wasn’t having it.
When the cat wasn’t defending his owner, he was a bonding agent, helping to create lasting friendships.
“I was getting coffee one day and John showed me something on his phone, I think. We just got to talking, and it became a daily routine. I would go there in the morning and hang out with John and Tigger, obviously,” says James Linden, a self-described cat person and 2015 grad, who invited Nehme to his 2016 wedding in Connecticut.
“Yeah, he came to my wedding. I mean, at that point, it was pretty much a no-brainer. We had become pretty close friends by then,” says Linden, adding that a friend who also attended Northeastern spotted Nehme during the wedding.
“He was like, ‘Is that the guy from the store?’” laughs Linden.
All of which reflects on Nehme’s own special spirit.
“[John] is exceedingly kind to all guests in his store,” says Christine Lee, who received her international business degree in 2011. He’s very willing to help customers find things, and if he doesn’t stock something, he’d be happy to stock it if you ask.”
A late-life scare—Tigger escaped the store and went missing for a few days last semester—compelled students to form a search party for the furball, who may have used up the last of his nine lives before he was found.
“When I saw the post that he was missing it really tore me up for a day or two,” says Marx.
“Honestly, I’m pretty impressed he lived this long,” says Linden. “I stopped in right before the pandemic and I couldn’t believe he was there. I’d like to think he remembered me, but I can’t be sure.”