Wilson’s building will not sit ‘idle,’ president says

  • Signs on the front of Wilson’s Department Store on Main Street in Greenfield announce its closing and a sale that will begin Friday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 11/27/2019 10:20:16 PM

GREENFIELD — Following the announcement that Wilson’s Department Store is closing, its president made it clear he wants the building to remain a functional piece of downtown Greenfield.

“I’m certainly not going to leave it idle,” said Kevin J. O’Neil, president of Wilson’s and part owner of its building on Main Street.

Wilson’s — a 137-year-old business and one of the few remaining independent, family-owned department stores in the country — announced Monday that it will hold a sale until all of its stock is gone, then close.

According to O’Neil, the retail store is closing due to his looming retirement. O’Neil, 65, started at Wilson’s in 1981, taking over as president in 1990. He said he has known since he was 30, when his father died at age 63, that he wanted to retire by age 65. The five-floor building — the first three are retail space — is owned in a limited partnership with O’Neil and American House LLC, based in Connecticut.

O’Neil said he has ideas about what should happen with the building, but would not share them because he hasn’t officially decided.

“That’s something that I’ll be working on, considering what to do with the building,” O’Neil said. “I’m going to take it one step at a time. This is a big decision I’m making.

“I am going to do something with the building. I have some thoughts and ideas, but I’m not prepared to share yet because I don’t know.”

Rachel Roberts, coordinator with the Greenfield Business Association, said Wilson’s closing leaves a “gap” in the community. Roberts said Wilson’s has always been an association member, and she doesn’t remember a time when the venerable business hasn’t had someone sitting on its board — currently, it’s Sheila Peers.

“I think it’s going to be a big loss for us, and I think it’s going to be a big loss for Greenfield,” she said. “It’s not just going to be a physical hole, it’s going to be a gap in our community until we figure out what the next steps are.”

Wilson’s, Roberts said, has always been “extremely generous” to other businesses and downtown Greenfield as a whole. Wilson’s has hosted downtown sidewalk sales, the annual Christmas-themed JingleFest and pop-up performance galleries, as well as assisting the annual Warm the Children clothing drive as a buyer. The latest example of such generosity is Wilson’s hosting the Festival of Trees on its third floor — the event has previously been held at Yankee Candle in Deerfield, but Yankee Candle was unable to provide space this year.

Roberts said the Greenfield Business Association plans to help Wilson’s with its “next phase,” ensuring the building remains vital to downtown Greenfield in the long term. However, nothing specific has been initiated yet.

“They have a focus right now, and that’s the end of their business,” Roberts said. “(O’Neil) has made it very clear he wants to get through with the sale first, and we want to honor that.”

The current building sits on what has long been known as the “Wilson’s Block” or “American House Block.” According to Kimberly Mew, the city’s assistant assessor, the property is listed as 242 through 262 Main St. and valued at $1,443,000. The business address is 258 Main St.

Wilson’s was founded in 1882 as “The Boston Store” by the White brothers. At the corner of Davis and Main streets, the original frontage was just 25 feet.

In 1896, a Scotsman named John Wilson bought the store and renamed it “The John Wilson Co.,” adding a second floor and a grand double staircase. There was a grocery department on the lower floor and livery stables on the property for the business’ horse-drawn delivery service.

Then, in 1929 R. Stanley Reid of the former Boston Store in North Adams, as well as George Willis of the then-Wallace Co. in Pittsfield, purchased the business. When Willis died in 1941, the Reid family took sole ownership, and Reid’s son Robert S. Reid Jr. became president when his father died in 1961.

The younger Reid expanded the second floor and added a third, and served as president until 1990 when O’Neil took over. O’Neil is Reid’s son-in-law.

During his tenure, O’Neil had the building’s first computer system installed and remodeled much of the interior. There were plans to develop the upper floors into a hotel and banquet hall several years ago, with the plan being to host visitors coming for town events such as the Green River Festival — the upper floors had been occupied by Hotel Greenfield until the mid-1960s. However, the plan fell through when the developer decided to go in a different direction.

The retirement sale will begin Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and will continue Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. The sale will continue until all merchandise has been sold. The Festival of Trees will continue on Wilson’s third floor on Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 14.

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