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Valley Tees closes after 24 years

  • Pathlight Executive Director Ruth Banta talks with Manager Tracy Romeo and Program Manager Cathy Flower at Valley Tees in Greenfield, which is closing after 24 years. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Cathy Flower, who has worked at Valley Tees for 24 years, makes some of the final screen prints on T-shirts for a local business. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Valley Tees in Greenfield has been in business for 24 years. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Valley Tees in Greenfield has been in business for 24 years. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Cathy Flower, who has worked at Valley Tees for 24 years, makes some of the final screen prints on tee shirts for a local business. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ



Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2018

GREENFIELD — Walking up Federal Street, you often window shop. There’s the books and flyers overflowing from Federal Street Books; the 5th Avenue displays in Aliber’s Bridal; a cool calm from Great Spirits Tattoo Company; wafting odors of brews and burgers slipping out the door of the People’s Pint; and a crowded palette of colors congregating in the corner windows of the block that is also home to Valley Tees. 

Sometimes you’ll notice Mary C. Fernsebner or one of her friends sitting at the table looking out onto Federal Street. People coming and going, maybe headed to Main Street. Occasionally, stopping in to pick-up an order of T-shirts, maybe for Frontier Recreational Basketball, Northfield Auto Body or the Greenfield High School Loyalty Honor Scholarship. 

Fernsebner has been there since the 2000s. Another employee has been there since Valley Tees opened in 1995. He’s retiring now. Fernsebner is taking break from work after a knee replacement. Another employee was offered work by one of the businesses that frequented the Federal Street shop. 

After 24 years though, Valley Tees has shut its doors, because it can’t break even any longer, not even with being buoyed from the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Disabilities. 

The T-shirt printing business has changed the last two decades — much like any shopping traditionally done on Main Street. Local people don’t always shop local, especially when they can custom buy the product online. There’s also been shifts in minimum wage laws, particularly for the people Tees would employ. The contract with DDS that had helped to provide security isn’t always a guarantee either, especially from one grant to the next. Now the contract will end.  

Valley Tees functioned as Franklin County’s T-shirt press, but it really was just a storefront for Pathlight, the Springfield-based nonprofit that supports people with developmental disabilities and their families, similar to The United Arc. Valley Tees was the sole vocational shop for Pathlight, employing folks in the area with a job with benefits. 

“As an organization, we’re still very much a part of the community, but we’re just going to miss this particular aspect of it, which was more accessible,” Pathlight Executive Director Ruth Banta said recently, on one of the waning days of the shop. “It made us and the community interact a lot, which we will miss.”

Banta came to visit Valley Tees Manager Cathy Flowers, who has run the business from the get-go, so they can talk plans moving forward. Flowers still was plowing through work orders on one of the final days of 2018, but it was just her at that point. 

“Sneaking in? I don’t have your shirt yet, but I promise I will have it before next Monday,” she said to a mustachioed-man. 

“You’ll be here next week?” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. “Don’t worry, I won’t disappoint you.”

“You never have.” 

Flower explained she needed to put together a single, custom shirt for him. It has the Superman logo on the front, the word “Souperman” on the sleeve and a slew of sayings on the back. He needed it before his next fundraiser event at Hope & Olive. He has always worn the one his wife got for him from Valley Tees years back, but he wanted to make sure he had a back-up for the worn-out outerwear since the shop was coming to a close. 

She brought the business from Wilmington, Vt., which is half an hour west of Brattleboro. It wasn’t an established business then, though. She had just begun to learn to print T-shirts. In Vermont in the 1990s, she was printing shirts in the upstairs of a barn that was set upon a hill. She was working for the organization Green Meadows at the time, which came into Pathlight’s fold in 2002. 

Green Meadows, as Flower explains it, was founded in 1952 by four families who wanted a home for their young sons with autism. They moved into this barn on the hill. From there, a residential school program grew to help those with autism and mental disabilities. Many families were from the western Mass. area, too, but traveling up there for the unique services. 

She would sell the T-shirts they made in the barn at a shop they had in town. Then, they asked her as they looked to move to the Pioneer Valley, “Do you think you can do something like that down here? I said we’ll try.” 

Valley Tees, which carries the initials Vt. for its namesake state, came to Greenfield in 1995. 

Since then, Flower has been working on the corner of Federal and Ames streets, serving the outside community, local businesses, schools and sports teams, but also the community working inside the store — her employees. 

When people ask her what she does for a living, she says, “I am a vocational trainer for people with developmental disabilities, and I taught them how to work, and they learned how to do the job, and they got paid a true wage for their work, along with benefits. And, I say, we print T-shirts. I teach them how to print T-shirts.” 

She smiles. T-shirts. It’s something she learned along the way in her career. Something she used to call tech support, and factories asked for help to do. What paint to use? What fabric? How to do it? “Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t,” she said, laughing. 

Flower recalled, in a room with bright pastels rolled onto the walls and T-shirts in every color, located in every corner, a moment with one former employee when they took it upon themselves to install a new toilet. They had completed the arduous project, but realized they left something in the piping and had to undo everything, before putting it back together. She chuckled at the thought.

 “It was a funny little project, but it doesn’t relate to all of this,” she said, going down memory lane. “It really was a great experience. There’s so much good stuff here.” 

There were Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfasts with her staff, events with the Greenfield Business Association, moments at career booths. “Yeah, that was a lot of fun.” 

“What I loved about the way Cathy worked is most people knew us as a T-shirt shop,” Banta said. “Some knew us as a group that employed people with mental disabilities and autism, but that wasn’t the first thing they knew. That’s very normalizing. That’s the way we wanted it. That’s the way Cathy really worked on it. Sometimes it took people a little more to understand what we did, and then they liked everything Cathy did and we did even more.” 

“People came to us. ‘We want to do business with you,’” Flower said. “They really liked our mission.”

“If we didn’t do good work though, they wouldn’t come for the mission,” Banta said. 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264