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Massachusetts' Wilson's Department Store Is Shutting Its Doors After 137 Years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Greenfield, Mass., where the family-owned Wilson's Department Store is shutting its doors after 137 years. And as New England Public Radio's Jill Kaufman reports, for many shoppers and employees, the last days of this local institution have been part reunion and part wake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, I'm sorry. My phone...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Thank you.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Wilson's Department Store is a fixture on a classically New England main street. And in its final weeks, there's no doubt customers are finding some bargains.

VALERIE MAGOON: Oh, my gosh. I have hit every section - clothes, homewares. I got a...

KAUFMAN: And the other day, Valerie Magoon bought two Waterford crystal glasses. But she didn't buy the decanter, and she couldn't stop thinking about it. So she bought it the next day. She's been here three days in a row.

MAGOON: I'm a little concerned I'm trying to just purchase all of Wilson's and recreate it in my home so I can hold on to it.

KAUFMAN: And hold on to memories of her mother who once shopped at the store.

MAGOON: And I can feel her so much here with me being like, I would want that. I would want that (laughter).

KAUFMAN: Regular shoppers brag all the employees know their names. And if you buy bras, they know your cup size. Wilson's closing has been hard on employees, too, and on store president, Kevin O'Neil. His wife's grandfather bought the store in 1929.

KEVIN O'NEIL: My emotions have been up and down a lot. I feel a huge loss.

KAUFMAN: O'Neil says the closing is not a financial decision.

O'NEIL: It's really a personal decision. It's a sad one, a very difficult one. I love the customers, the community, everything about it.

KAUFMAN: He could have kept the store going for a few more years, but O'Neil made a choice to spend more time with his family while he can. His father died in his mid-60s, and that haunts O'Neil. His own children weren't interested in taking on the 100,000-square-foot store. And if they had been, with a steady decline in sales, O'Neil says he would have talked them out of it. The store is down to 35 employees. And when paged, each one has their own chime - like Morse code, one cashier joked.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAGER BEEPING)

KAUFMAN: It was all hands on deck on Black Friday, when Wilson's was unusually packed with customers. And the checkout lines were really long, says Ruthie McDonald, who's been shopping at Wilson's since she was a teenager.

RUTHIE MCDONALD: You know, it's kind of a reunion of sorts because I saw everybody I knew in town, you know, is here shopping and, you know, all kind of saying the same thing. Everybody is sad.

KAUFMAN: A few years ago, Greenfield residents managed to keep a Walmart from opening up in town. But online shopping may be the unstoppable competition. In the last few weeks, Wilson's shoppers have taken to social media, writing about how this was the place they registered for their wedding, had their hair done, brought their grandmother to get her girdle adjusted. For Laura Herbert, shopping at Wilson's was an experience that took her back in time. And for about six years, she's been blogging about the store.

LAURA HERBERT: Today when I came in, I was at the makeup counter and someone said, oh, I recognize you. You're Wilson's Girl. And (laughter) I love your blog. I read your blog. And I was so touched by that.

KAUFMAN: The blog, Wilson's Girl, is filled with stories and sort of action photos about the hats and dresses and kitchen gadgets Herbert bought at the store. And on this maybe last shopping day, she made a few purchases and then found store president Kevin O'Neil and his wife standing near the ladies lingerie department. She introduced herself and thanked him. Then she went home and wrote about the conversation, including the part where they all came to the same conclusion - they don't know where they'll shop once Wilson's is gone for good.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman in western Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITEFIELD BROTHERS' "SAFARI STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.

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