Downtown Amherst anchor A.J. Hastings to close up shop

By DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-25-2022 2:30 PM

AMHERST — A.J. Hastings, a third-generation retail store that has been a cornerstone of Amherst’s downtown since it opened in 1914, will close its doors next month.

A large closing announcement hung from the front window on Friday. Inside, shop owners Mary Louise Broll and Sharon Povinelli, who are married, said they are looking forward to traveling and focusing on hobbies — activities that often take a back seat to running a business that is open every day of the year. The two own the building and said they are looking for tenants to occupy the space.

“I’m a little relieved,” Povinelli said Friday, standing in a back room of the store filled with notebooks. Years prior, workers used to stack newspapers to prepare them for delivery on the same counter where she sat. “Extremely sad,” added Broll, standing next to her wife. “This store has been a big part of our lives and our family.”

A.J. Hastings has been an anchor of downtown for generations on South Pleasant Street across from the town common. For many, it was where they got their daily newspaper, chatted with neighbors or worked their first job as a clerk or delivering the paper.

“Hastings survived two world wars and two pandemics,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said. “It’s a big loss for the town.”

Bockelman also highlighted the fact that most of the store’s employees have worked at the “mom-and-pop” shop for several decades.

“The people who work there are the people we’re going to miss,” he said. “It hurts the heart.”

75 years on site

The store has been with the Hastings family since 1914, though it has actually been around a lot longer.

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In 1849, a man named Mirick Spear opened up shop on the corner of North Pleasant and Main streets, according to a company history. His store, called Spear’s, moved around and changed hands several times before Asa J. Hastings purchased the stationery and newsstand business July 17, 1914. In 1937, it moved to its current location, anchoring the block of businesses on what’s known as Merchant’s Row.

Asa and his wife, Maude, ran the store and their sons ran paper routes and did other tasks. One son, Donald Hastings, took over the family business in 1953 and ran the store until his son David Hastings took over in 1982.

In 1997, David Hastings was struck and killed by a car while riding his bike home from work shortly after Christmas. Broll, his wife, took over running the place and raising the pair’s two sons, Sam and Ben. Povinelli, who began as an employee at the store, married Broll in 2009.

Open every day

The store has been open every day since it was open, regardless of weather or day. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, A.J. Hastings shut its doors just like other businesses.

“That was when you knew the pandemic was real — when Hastings closed for the first time for real,” Bockelman said.

In addition to carrying office and school supplies, the store maintained a close, though informal, relationship with Amherst College, carrying college merchandise as well as lots of UMass Amherst collegiate gear. Povinelli said that unlike most other stores, A.J. Hastings does everything in house, from payroll to accounts payable. “This kind of business doesn’t really exist like this any more,” she said.

That’s part of the reason why the couple decided to close shop — it would be difficult to train others to run the business, and their children don’t live in town to take over. Things have also changed over the years. They said that the store used to deal with suppliers directly, buying straight from the source.

“And then mergers, acquisitions, split-offs,” Povinelli said. Soon, companies required them to order a certain amount of product just to speak with them.

Then other changes came. “Staples coming in, CVS coming in,” Povinelli said, with Broll finishing her sentence: “And then the internet.”

Last of old Amherst

Many have described the closing as the end of an era in Amherst. Stanley Rabinowitz, a professor at Amherst College who moved to town 49 years ago, described the closing as a “terrible piece of news.”

“It’s the last place that remains of the old Amherst institutions,” he said. “It was as much a place to chat and catch up on local news as it was to make purchases ... I literally can’t imagine what this town will be like without it.”

Local developer Barry Roberts, the president of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said the store and its owners “will be sorely missed.”

“I think that the two owners deserve their retirement and there’s nobody to pick up the reins,” Roberts said.

Shopping in the store on Friday was Susan Varnot, who now lives in California but grew up in the area. She said coming into A.J. Hastings was an essential stop any time she was back in town — the one place she’s sure to find everything from sheet-music paper to beloved National brand notebooks.

“This place has been here forever,” Varnot said. “It just feels good to be able to walk into a place … I always know I can find something I’m not going to find in a chain store.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.]]>