Early one morning, Hepzibah, who according to the previous owner's will can live in the house as long as she wishes, arises, gazes at the miniature portrait of a delicate young man, and then goes into a paneled old room with a faded carpet, tables, a high-backed chair, and the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, to which she presents her habitual near-sighted scowl. Unable to sew or teach school, she must now earn her living here. With a deep sigh, the old spinster reluctantly opens the cent-shop, now filled with flour, apples, soap, candles, dried vegetables, candy, gingerbread men, lead soldiers, matches, and the like.
The town stirs; the old spinster seems simultaneously ludicrous and pathetic. Her first customer is Holgrave, the daguerreotypist (or photographer) who rents a part of the vast old Pyncheon house. When Hepzibah breaks down and cries, he comforts her by telling her that she is now a heroic part of the great working public, and then he asks for some biscuits, which she gives him without allowing him to pay. Afterward, a boy, Ned Higgins, comes to get a Jim Crow cookie, for which she does not charge him; but when he returns for another, she demands his penny. It is done. She is now a tradeswoman. She feels a curious thrill — almost a feeling of joy. But her day is mixed — pessimistic and curious customers loiter, or else they enter to observe her. When a rich woman passes, Hepzibah is tempted to curse her, but then she repents and scowls instead. The day continues. Hepzibah's rich cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, walks by, well dressed but no longer handsome, with an unpleasant smile, and he looks disapprovingly at her shop but then smiles broadly when he sees her. Hepzibah notes that he resembles their Puritan ancestor's portrait hanging in the house's living room, which she now visits. She begins to think of her brother, Clifford, persecuted because of the soft traits in him that he inherited from their soft-hearted mother. Returning to her shop, she sees old Uncle Venner, a kindly fellow with a fund of wisdom who talks of his ultimate retirement to his "farm" — in reality, the workhouse. He advises Hepzibah to smile at her customers, and then he cautiously asks when "he" (Clifford) is expected home. When Uncle Venner leaves, Hepzibah feels sad and confused; she gives wrong change, and she welcomes the end of her first commercial day, even though her profit amounts to only a few coppers.
As she is locking the door of the cent-shop, Hepzibah notices an omnibus drawing up to the front of the house, and out steps a pretty young girl with a trunk. Hepzibah, peering from out of the darkness, recognizes the young lady as Phoebe, a kinsperson from the country, whose letter announcing her arrival has been overlooked in the postman's pocket for four or five days.
The second chapter presents a picture of Hepzibah at dawn on the day that she must perform the dreaded task of opening a shop, of becoming a "tradesperson." Dawn, the traditional symbol of new beginnings, holds no positive meaning for this old woman who has shut herself up in her house, completely apart from "the business of life." The very crossing of the threshold of her own bedroom door is a crucial moment, a daring act. Shut away from the world and the sun, her black mood and her scowl have come to define her. And even though her heart never "frowns," even though it is tender and sensitive, it is full of little tremors and palpitations that are called weaknesses. Her scowl and her sternness, significantly, also belonged to the Colonel, the original Pyncheon, as they now belong to the Judge, the present leading Pyncheon, although the Judge takes care to conceal these ominous indications of his true nature. As Hepzibah comes into her shop to arrange her "wares" for the first time, there is a deeply tragic sense that contrasts greatly with the "ludicrous pettiness of her employment."
The novel's narrative actually begins in Chapter 3, "The First Customer," when Hepzibah has to face the sunlight of everyday reality. Darkness, we see, is the emblematic "color" of the Pyncheons, and — contrasted with its opposite, light — it forms one of the major symbols of the novel: the opposition of dark and light. The two images are opposed as shadow and sunshine, as frown and smile, and as Pyncheon portrait and sunlit daguerreotype.
At the first ring of the shop bell, Hepzibah rises, as pale as a ghost; however, it is not a customer but her lodger, Holgrave. Entering from the morning light, "he appears to bring" some of its cheery influence into the shop along with him. Appears is a very important word here, for Holgrave is a Maule and not a true inhabitant of "the street." Early in the first chapter, the narrator cites the prediction that old Matthew Maule's ghost will haunt the "new apartments" of the Pyncheon house. This prophesy has come true in flesh and blood in the person of Holgrave, who lives in a remote gable of the house, separated from the main portion. Although his real home has been the street, and although his education has been the result of "passing through the thoroughfares of life," he has now cut himself off from the street. However, he really belongs to neither realm — neither to the realm of the house nor to the realm of the street. He is, we must remember, a descendant of Matthew Maule. Therefore, Holgrave does belong, as it were, more to the house than to the street. He, like the inhabitants of the house, has a "dark, high-featured countenance," and a strange gleam of half-hidden sarcasm can be observed behind the kindliness of his manner. As a daguerreotypist, he remarks that he "misuses Heaven's sunshine" by tracing out human features through its "agency."
Left to herself, poor Hepzibah reflects upon the darkness of her prospects, with her pitiful little shop pitted against the great thoroughfares of a city, with all its great stores. For her, there is only the dusky old House of the Seven Gables; it is a mirror which contains within it the ghosts of all the past Pyncheons and Hepzibah herself, in a gown of black silk, scowling at the world as it goes by. As light — and especially sunlight — opposes darkness, the street of human activity opposes the dark Pyncheon house and Hepzibah's store. This dark-light image symbolizes the major struggles of the book: death-life, past-present, present-future, despair-hope, and prison-freedom.
That the family makes overtures to the street in order to become part of the world is seen in what Hepzibah has in her cent-shop. She has attempted to adjust to the street by stocking modern and contemporary items. And finally Hepzibah herself takes courage in facing the outside world, and her face is filled with the healthiest glow that she has exhibited for years. Yet when she opens the shop, the despondency of her past life threatens to return like the heavy mass of clouds, obscuring the sky.
Towards noon on this day of Hepzibah's ordeal, Judge Pyncheon approaches. He is wiping perspiration from his brow, but he seems made of respectability and benevolence, despite the fact that he carries with him a grim darkness, along with his public brightness. He is capable of frowns and smiles alike, and his expression this morning is "acrid and disagreeable," but it becomes filled with sunny complacency and benevolence when he becomes aware of Hepzibah in her shop window. Yet he passes on, leaving Hepzibah thinking how closely he resembles the ancient portrait of the Colonel, the original Pyncheon.
The Colonel's portrait has almost faded into the canvas; even the physical outline and substance are dark. Put him (Jaffrey) in the Colonel's clothes, reflects Hepzibah, and "then let Jaffrey smile as he might — nobody would doubt that it was the old Pyncheon come again!" This fancy, however, is treated as a mere product of her loneliness and isolation: she needs a walk along the noonday street to keep her sane; she needs to mingle with the outside world.
It is not entirely Hepzibah's fancy, however. One of the reasons that the Pyncheons and the House of the Seven Gables is degenerating is that they have had so few offsprings; those who were born grew up dissipated and sickly because they have kept their line so pure, and have not allowed many outsiders into the house. The fact that Jaffrey looks like the Colonel, then, is not surprising. The Colonel had but one grandson; the murdered bachelor uncle had no sons, and neither has Clifford; and Judge Jaffrey has but one irascible son. Ironically, however (and this is in connection with the observation made by Hepzibah regarding the similarities between the old Colonel and the Judge), it has been sexual aggressiveness which has limited the Pyncheon children — and the cane of the Judge is, in part, a symbol of this aggression. Colonel Pyncheon, it is said, wore out three wives by the remorseless weight and hardness of his character. The equally animalistic Jaffrey "exhausted" his wife in three or four years. Hawthorne deftly hints at the Judge's sexual behavior by describing his contribution to agriculture "through the agency of the famous Pyncheon bull." In contrast, there is Clifford, who has "never quaffed [drank from] the cup of passionate love," and Hepzibah, the "time-stricken virgin" who has never known "what love technically means."