Wilson’s Department Store to close after 137 years in Greenfield

  • President Kevin J. O’Neil refers to an old picture of Wilson’s Department Store in his office in Greenfield on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • President Kevin J. O’Neil announces his retirement and closing of Wilson’s Department Store in his corner office in Greenfield on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • President Kevin J. O’Neil refers to buildings and businesses gone by in this aerial photo of Wilson’s and the surrounding area of Greenfield on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • President Kevin J. O’Neil announces his retirement and closing of Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • President Kevin J. O’Neil announces his retirement and closing of Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield is closing soon. A sign announcing its retirement/closing sale was posted on the door Monday morning. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for 137 years, is closing soon. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The cover of an old catalog for Wilson’s.

  • A vintage photo of Wilson’s when the building housed a hotel.

  • Signs about the closing sale are posted on Wilson’​​​​​​​s front windows. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2019 12:53:20 PM

GREENFIELD — Wilson’s Department Store President Kevin J. O’Neil confirmed early Monday morning the 137-year-old anchor retail store in downtown Greenfield is indeed closing due to his impending retirement.

In an exclusive interview, O’Neil said that after his father died at age 63, when O’Neil was 30 years old, he had already started thinking about how he would retire by age 65.

O’Neil sat in his 1970s retro office surrounded by his wife’s art and a collage of Wilson’s and Main Street with a still-working rotary phone he calls the “bat phone” that only his family calls so they can avoid the switchboard.

“I knew that someday I’d want to spend some time with my wife after working so many years,” he said. “I knew I’d want to spend time with my children and, hopefully, grandchildren.”

And, that’s exactly what he decided to do. He said he’ll spend time with his four children and eight grandchildren. Accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, he also plans to travel, hike and visit national parks.

“We never know how much time we have,” said O’Neil, who started at Wilson’s more than 38 years ago in 1981 and became its president in 1990. “I want to make sure I get the time with my family that I planned all those years ago.”

Wilson’s made the announcement on Facebook shortly before the Greenfield Recorder arrived for the interview.

Difficult decision

O’Neil said the store is closing because he is retiring. He said no other family members wanted to take the reins, and he probably wouldn’t have encouraged it, anyway. He said this will be his 39th and last Christmas at the store.

“It’s difficult to be in retail in the world today,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges.”

O’Neil said Wilson’s, one of the last independent, family-owned department stores in the country, probably would have survived several more years, maybe even a decade more, but he was ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” he said. “I’ve been struggling with choosing the right time to do this for the last several years. I guess there’s never really a right time.”

O’Neill said he is concerned about his 35 employees — a mix of full- and part-time people — and what they’ll do or where they will go. He said a few are set to retire, anyway, while some have already retired from other careers and came to Wilson’s to work part-time.

He’s also concerned about the many loyal customers who will have to find somewhere else to shop for high-quality, reasonably price items, including everything from men’s, women’s and children’s clothing to housewares and toys, shoes and accessories, cosmetics and jewelry, candy, greeting cards, stationary and more. There’s even been a beauty shop on the second floor just beyond O’Neil’s office.


O’Neil said he really started thinking about retirement three years ago when a water line burst on Main Street and flooded Wilson’s basement.

“There was so much water,” he said. “It destroyed our basement, and it was very stressful. We moved things upstairs temporarily, and we waited from when it happened in August to starting renovations in February because we had to settle with the insurance company.”

He said at that point he started talking with his family about how much longer he could deal with the stress without meeting the same fate as his father.

“For us, retirement meant closing down the business,” O’Neil said. “We’ll think about what comes next once our retirement sale is over and we’ve closed the doors.”

O’Neil said he has asked a company for its assistance in the closing and all that comes with it, including the retirement sale of all of its merchandise, as well as the fixtures.

“In today’s world, it’s probably going to be difficult to find a buyer for a single-unit department store,” he said.

Previous plans

O’Neil said he had hoped several years ago to turn the upper floors into a hotel and banquet hall, but after working with a developer for about five years, the developer decided to go in another direction.

“I knew I wouldn’t be up to managing the store and a hotel,” he said. “I think there’s a real need for it, but someone else is going to have to do it.”

Several years ago, the company bought the former Greenfield Community Television (GCTV) property on Chapman Street with plans to build the 62-room hotel, taking the building back to its roots — Hotel Greenfield occupied the upper floors until the mid-1960s. The vision was for visitors to town events, like the Green River Festival, and parents of students attending private schools throughout the area could stay there, as well as leaf peepers and others, especially since there was talk of train service returning to Greenfield.

At the time, O’Neil had said a new building would be constructed on the former GCTV site with its main entrance there, and it would have an entrance into the Wilson’s building. He began the permitting process with the city. The brick facade was going to be restored — the white vented metal facade built in 1965 would be replaced. He had estimated the project would take about three years to complete, but the plans fell through.

Retirement sale

O’Neil said starting Friday, Wilson’s will hold a retirement sale until it has sold everything it has in stock.

“We won’t be buying new items,” he said. “We’re taking the time before Thanksgiving to re-ticket things, so we’re closed.”

O’Neil said the store will remain open until the sale is over. He said he doesn’t know how long that will take — it could be until shortly after Thanksgiving, or it could take until Christmas.

“It’s time to look to the future,” he said. “This was not a financial decision, so we have some time to decide what to do with the space. It’s a big building with three elevators, several air-conditioning units and heating units. We’ll have to see.”

O’Neil said what he will miss most is the customers and staff.

“We’ve had a lot of long-timers work here, and I’ve seen grandparents, their children and now their grandchildren come through the doors,” O’Neil said. “My wife worked here through high school and college. All of my four children started working here when they were 15. But, they all went in different directions, had their own interests, their own ideas for careers.”

O’Neil said the biggest change he has seen over the years is along Main Street in Greenfield, pointing to the photos of Main Street hanging on his office walls.

“It was thriving,” he said. “We were all thriving. There were so many retailers up and down the street. We could continue, but we’ve made a decision to control our future.”

A brief history

Wilson’s Department Store started out as The Boston Store, owned by the White brothers from 1882 to 1896. The store’s original frontage was only 25 feet, but as the store thrived, the Whites doubled its size, and in 1896, John Wilson, who was from Scotland, bought it from the Whites and renamed it The John Wilson Co. Wilson added a second floor and built the grand double staircase that is still there today. He also had a grocery department on the lower level and livery stables on the property when he began a horse-drawn delivery service.

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

During his tenure, the younger Reid expanded the second floor and added a third. He served as president until his retirement in 1990. O’Neil, his son-in-law, joined the business nine years before Reid retired and was elected to the top position in 1990, when Reid left. O’Neil installed the first computer system and did some interior remodeling.

The block in which Wilson’s has been for more than a century is known to many as the Wilson Block or the American House Block, which runs from Wilson’s to Taylor’s Tavern.

The timeline

1882: Wilson’s Department Store was founded by the White brothers at the corner of Main and Davis streets as The Boston Store. The original frontage was 25 feet.

1896: John Wilson, of Scotland, purchased the store and renamed it to John Wilson Company. A second level was added, featuring a grand double staircase, as well as a grocery department on the lower level.

1929: R. Stanley Reid, of the former Boston Store in North Adams, and George L. Willis, of the then Wallace Company in Pittsfield, together purchased the John Wilson Company store from the Wilson family.

1941: Following Willis’ death, the business was managed by the Reid family.

1961: Robert S. Reid Jr. served as president of Wilson’s from the time of his father’s death in 1961 until his retirement in 1990. During his tenure, he expanded the second floor and added a third floor once occupied by the Greenfield Hotel.

1974: More expansion of the second and third floors took place.

1990: Kevin J. O’Neil, son-in-law of Reid, joined the family business in 1981. He was elected president of Wilson’s Inc. in 1990. He installed the first computer system and has overseen many interior remodeling projects.

2019: O’Neil announced his retirement and the store’s closing.

Sale details

The retirement sale will begin Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and will continue on 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.

Earlier this year, Wilson’s announced plans to host the Festival of Trees. The annual charity event, in its fourth year, has previously been held at Yankee Candle, but a lack of availability of the company’s annex caused organizers to reach out to Wilson’s, which agreed to host the endeavor that began last week. Festival of Trees will continue on Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 14.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269 or afritz@recorder.com.

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