Hundreds shop at Wilson’s for the last time

  • Kevin J. O’€™Neil greeted each and every person who was waiting in line at the back door of Wilson’s retirement sale Friday morning. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Hundreds of shoppers wait in line at Wilson’€™s Friday for its retirement sale. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • People look for bargains at Wilson’s retirement sale Friday morning. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • People look for bargains at Wilson’€ retirement sale Friday morning. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Waiting at the front door for Wilson’s retirement sale are Brian Hemingway, Caitlin von Schmidt, Rebecca Beauregard and Gerard Gualberto, with the line stretching around the building. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Hundreds of shoppers ring the parking lot of Wilson’€™s Friday morning waiting to get into its retirement sale. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2019 11:27:38 AM

GREENFIELD — As Wilson’s Department Store President Kevin J. O’Neil shook hands with between 400 and 500 people Friday morning, greeting every one of them before many entered the store for the last time, it brought back memories of days gone by, when Wilson’s was bustling on Friday evenings.

O’Neil said “Hello” or “Welcome” to every person, and each one returned the greeting with “Good luck,” “Best wishes” or “We’ll miss you,” all knowing his plans for retirement. Some people let him know how sad they are that one of their favorite local stores is closing.

The line started with one man at the front door of the 137-year-old store on Main Street at 6:30 a.m. That line had wrapped around to the side door on Davis Street by 8:30. The store’s parking lots were full, and a line at the back door weaved through the back lot to Chapman Street.

Former Greenfield Business Association Coordinator Caitlin von Schmidt, who was second in line at the front door, said she is devastated that Wilson’s is closing due to its president’s retirement.

“It wasn’t unexpected,” she said. “I’m glad they hung on this long in this retail climate, but I’d love to see a mixed use here.”

She said she would love to see a hotel on the top floors and mixed use on the lower floors, just like what was planned a few years ago.

“I bought my Timex watch here,” said Brian Hemingway of the former Hemingway Locksmiths. “I hope to get a wallet today. I hate that the store is closing.”

Hemingway said he has lived in Franklin County for 36 years, and he would occasionally go to Wilson’s to shop.

Rebecca Beauregard said she was heartbroken when she heard the news.

“Its closing is going to change the landscape of Greenfield,” she said. “I’d love to see one of the floors become a roller rink. I think I’d like to see a multiplex, and I’d like to see the old building, again,” referring to the white vented metal facade built in 1965 that she would like to return to the original brick facade.

Elaine Wanderlick, 29, of Erving, grew up in Greenfield and remembers shopping at Wilson’s for Beanie Babies. She was back to do the same on Friday morning.

“I used to come with my grandmother and my mother,” said Wanderlick, who lives with her grandfather, Robert Bitzer. “They’re both gone now, but I have great memories of this store. It’s the last big smaller store I remember as a kid.”

Elizabeth Baez, who recently moved to Greenfield, said it would be her first, and probably last, time shopping at Wilson’s.

“I haven’t gone in yet, but I already love the store,” she said. “I’m excited.”

There were familiar and new faces in the crowd, young and old, celebrating the end of an era, as Wilson’s will close its doors forever when all of the merchandise and fixtures have been sold. There were lines at every cash register on all floors — people buying pillows, bedding, sweaters, blenders, pots and pans, makeup, scarves and so much more.

Eileen Lively, of Heath, said she is very sad.

“I only moved here 13 years ago, but this is where I shop,” she said. “I love Wilson’s. I’m so happy I could come one last time to support the store and be a part of this.”

Well after 9:30, people were still coming from Main, Ames, Davis and Chapman streets. As they entered the store, bright pink and green signs reminded them that the store is closing. Other signs directed them to displays that were 20- 30- and even 50-percent off. Other, less conspicuous signs read “No returns, No exchanges, No refunds and No checks,” letting people know all sales are final, just like O’Neil’s decision to close the store.

O’Neil announced the closing last week. He said his father died at the age of 63, and at 65, he doesn’t want the same fate. He said he will spend time with his wife, four children and eight grandchildren. He said he’ll travel, hike and do all of the things he hasn’t had time for while serving as the store’s president.

So, he has decided to retire and said that meant closing the store, as well. Though it was a difficult decision, he said no one in the family wanted to carry it on, and he wasn’t about to encourage anyone in this retail climate.

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 retirement sale

The retirement sale began Friday 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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