Staying power Area businesses that know the secret of longevity
Jay Czelusniak at the funeral on North street Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Pauline Lannon poses with some locally grown squash at the Atkins Farms Store in Amherst Friday. Purchase photo reprints »
Joan Yamilkoski, owner of Canal Bowling Lanes in Southampton, cuts cake for the monthly seniors coffee. Yamilkoski says her father started the business "on a shoestring." Purchase photo reprints »
In the era of the superstore, is there still a place for home-grown, small-scale businesses? For the owners of five Hampshire County businesses which have all hit or surpassed the half century mark, the answer is yes.
Manchester Hardware, Easthampton
Manchester Hardware is so old, says owner Carol Perman, that she can’t even pinpoint the date it was founded.
The earliest records of the business — back when it was a store that sold heating pipes, she says — date to 1895. By 1911, the business was incorporated with the state of Massachusetts as G.L. Manchester Company Inc.
Perman says she’s been told the original store displayed its stock — loose nails, screws and other goods — on tables and in bins. It also sold hardware for horse harnesses and saddles, she says.
The family got its start in retail when Perman’s grandfather, a Polish immigrant, opened a grocery store on Union Street. That business was sold to Perman’s uncle, who renamed it Ed’s Foodland and moved it to the corner of Union and Main streets. It’s now known as Big E’s Supermarket.
Then Perman’s grandfather sold the former grocery site to her father, who opened an appliance store and started purchasing additional retail properties on the same block, including a jewelry store and a luncheonette. In 1961 he bought Manchester’s, where he continued to sell appliances but kept up the hardware side of the business as well.
Perman started working at Manchester Hardware when she was 10, she says, dusting appliances for 25 cents an hour. “My dad called it polishing the apples.” She went to college, got a job, then returned to Manchester’s when her father died in 1989.
It continues to be a family affair, Perman said. Her cousin, Edwin Stawarz, has worked at Manchester’s for 47 years.
“One person, his whole life, has worked at one place. That’s kind of rare, isn’t it?” Perman asked.
“It’s a wonderful life,” she said of running Manchester Hardware. “It’s a life nobody gets to do much anymore. I drive to work, I hit one traffic light. I know all the people. I see people I graduated high school with. If I needed anything, I think I could say people would help us.
“I always say I’m a temporary caretaker, and hopefully it’ll be here for years to come,” Perman added. “Manchester’s has very good karma.”
Czelusniak Funeral Home, Northampton
Jay Czelusniak’s first job as a kid was at his family’s funeral home, where he handed out cigarettes and cigars in its downstairs smoking lounge.
Today, he’s still involved with the family business, as owner of Czelusniak Funeral Home.
The field has changed a lot in the intervening years, he says.
Czelusniak’s great-grandfather founded the business in 1910. Back then, funeral homes were often just storefronts, with services taking place “right out of peoples’ homes,” Czelusniak said.
Changes in the funeral business mirror the changes in society, he says, with the standard for funerals shifting from “traditional service to personal event.” The clientele at Czelusniak Funeral Home was once almost exclusively Polish Catholic, and services were typically enormous family gatherings held over two days. Now, Czelusniak said, “Services aren’t as big. Families are spread out across the world now.” Interfaith services are common.
“In a lot of ways it’s a little more interesting for us,” he said. “Every funeral we do is a little bit different.”
The move away from the conventional means more room for creativity and personalization, Czelusniak says. Technological advances help, too.
One example: The funeral home now has a 30-inch flat-screen TV so families can display slide shows of their loved ones during calling hours.
“We’re more of event planners now,” Czelusniak said.
Cremation has also become more common. Back when his father, Robert, ran the business, just 1 to 2 percent of people chose cremation. Now that figure stands at 30 or 40 percent.
Submitting funeral notices to local newspapers has changed as well, Czelusniak says. “Growing up we would have to call in to the Gazette, go over word by word the obituary, spelling every name. It’d take a long time,” he said.
Now it’s done by email.
The primary job for the funeral home, though, remains the same: listening.
“It’s hard for (clients) to explain or even know what they really want,” Czelusniak said. “It’s up to us to make sure they get what they want.”
Canal Bowling Lanes, Southampton
Canal Bowling Lanes was started 51 years ago by current owner Joan Yamilkoski’s father, Paul Cantin, who got the idea during a fishing trip in New Hampshire.
Cantin already had a business, manufacturing novelty gift items like figurines, Yamilkoski says. But in the late 1950s, as Japanese imports undercut his prices, he began casting about for a new line of work. During that fishing trip Cantin’s father suggested that he open a candlepin bowling alley. And on a whim, Yamilkoski says, he did just that.
Cantin sold a log cabin he owned on Pine Island Lake in Westhampton and used the proceeds to build Canal Lanes on College Highway, on the site of his novelty business.
“My father was an entrepreneur,” Yamilkoski said. “There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t try.”
“It’s a comfortable business now,” Yamilkoski said of the bowling alley. But in its early days, she says, business was booming. There were two leagues running every night, with balls and pins crashing late into the evenings.
She’s still got regulars, Yamilkoski says — bowlers who’ve been coming to Canal Lanes since she started running the business 28 years ago — and some of the old-time ways endure. Bowlers still keep track of their scores with pencils and paper score sheets, for instance.
“Nobody has asked for automatic scoring. They’re perfectly happy with what I have,” Yamilkoski said. As one parent told her: It’s great arithmetic practice for children.
But Yamilkoski and her son Mark, who runs the business with her, have come up with new ways to keep going.
“Loads of birthday parties,” she said, plus engagement parties and even after-funeral gatherings. Canal Lanes has also hosted three weddings — including one for Yamilkoski’s daughter, Lisa. “I thought she was nuts, but she said, ‘No, I want to have a fun wedding!’
“At 2 o’clock in the morning all 16 lanes were going. The people had a ball,” Yamilkoski said.
Atkins Farms Country Market, Amherst
Atkins Farms was a well-established wholesale orchard when its owners decided, in 1962, to branch out into the retail field by selling apples directly to customers. The farm stand was housed in a 40-by-50-foot shed, and was open for just a few months each fall.
Pauline Lannon began working there a year later.
“I grew with the business,” she says.
Lannon actually grew into the business; she is now the store’s owner.
This fall, Atkins Farms is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Still in the same location where it started out, at the corner of Bay Road and Route 116 in Amherst, Atkins Farms Country Market is now a full-sized retail operation that sells produce, meat, seafood and prepared and specialty foods — including its famous apple cider donuts.
The apples — more than 20 varieties — pears and peaches still come from the Atkins orchard, which got its start in 1887 with 10 acres and about 100 trees. The orchard has since expanded to include acreage in Belchertown.
Over the last decade, Lannon says, she’s noticed a big increase in the demand for the store’s other local products. “The footprint is less costly without fuel (for shipping),” she said. “People are more in tune to that.”
But one part of the business hasn’t changed since the day Atkins Farms opened its doors in 1962, Lannon said: “We still grow a great-quality apple.”
O’Brien Funeral Home, Easthampton
The sign outside O’Brien Funeral Home reads “Since 1896,” but owner Michael O’Brien, the great-grandson of its founder — also named Michael O’Brien — says that date might not be accurate. Recently, he found a photo of the business taken in the 1870s.
When he had the sign made, O’Brien said, the oldest paperwork he could find was dated 1896.
“My father used to always say, ‘Well, that’s probably when your great-grandfather learned how to write,’ ” O’Brien said. “You know that saying you should never dispute your parents?”
But whichever date is accurate, he said, “I think we may in fact be the oldest continuously operating business in the town of Easthampton.
“The funeral business in and of itself — it’s metamorphosing,” O’Brien said. “Now it’s eclectic, like everything else in society.”
Ethnic and religious divisions are less pronounced, and the traditions that go along with the cultures have changed as well, he says.
Today, O’Brien said, funerals are all “different from family to family, person to person.”
The O’Brien Funeral Home has long been a family affair. O’Brien’s grandmother worked there for 60 years.
“I’ve only been in the business 22 years now,” said O’Brien, who’s spent 16 of those years as owner. Before that, he worked in political campaigns. “My hope would be to continue for the rest of my days.”
And after that? O’Brien, who has a young daughter, muses that the funeral home could become a fifth-generation family-owned business.
“We’re not exactly pressuring her,” he said, “but you never know. If you’d have asked me in high school, I’d say you were out of your mind.”
O’Brien said increasing numbers of women are entering the field. “My grandmother, back in her days, was a bit of an anomaly,” he said.
O’Brien said he looks to the example of earlier generations.
“My grandfather was a guy that tried to improve the business,” he said. He’s finalizing plans to enlarge the chapel and update its decor. He said he also wants to incorporate energy efficiencies and make more room for parking.
“The same dedication my great-grandfather had, my grandfather had, my father had, I’m trying to maintain,” O’Brien said.