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Anthony Borgatti, Jr. (Spag)

1916–1996

For Anthony Borgatti, Jr. - known as ‘Spag’ to everyone outside his family - doing what was right invariably translated into doing things his way, whether or not it was the conventionally acceptable way. This was true in how he approached both his business and his personal life. He dared to be different, and he didn’t care what others thought or said, as long as he thought it was right.

As a result, thousands of people benefited from his unique way of thinking - the customers who shopped at a store, the employees and vendors who worked with him, the friends and strangers on whom he bestowed acts of generosity, and the family members who were gifted by his presence in their lives. He found pleasure in doing for others.  

Anthony often said, “Business is not just a matter of dollars and cents; it’s about people.” This attitude would endear him to hundreds of thousands of customers, employees, friends, neighbors, and family members. Over the years Anthony became known as much for his generosity, integrity, and jovial nature as for his success in turning a $35 investment into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

Venice Emporium

Anthony’s father, Antonio, immigrated from a country village near Bologna, Italy in 1909.  Upon landing at Ellis Island, he headed for Wellesley, Massachusetts, where his cousins were already established. Through family members he met Brigida, who had also recently immigrated from Italy to live with her sister in Wellesley. They were married in 1912 and moved to a small apartment on the east side of Worcester.

Antonio was working as a waiter at an upscale private club in Worcester that provided a more than adequate income and they soon purchased a three-decker on Shrewsbury Street.  From this location, Antonio could easily see the trolley and would watch the hustle and bustle of passengers coming and going. He had a strong desire to acquire property and saw the need for a combination luncheonette - convenient store along the trolley line. Next to his three-decker was a vacant lot, which he soon purchased and built a one story brick building for his store.

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Antonio and Brigida 1912

Antonio envisioned his store as a miniature Venice Emporium, a train terminal in Venice that he had visited before shipping out to the States.  Consequently, he named his store the Venice Emporium, and it thrived.  He had placed a soda fountain lengthwise down the middle of the store where he could stand and scoop ice cream from tubs in the freezer and added a small counter for customers who wanted to buy fruit, candy, gum, tobacco, or magazines.

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Born Salesman

Antonio and Brigida gave birth to their first child on February 29, 1916 and named him Anthony after his father. By the time Anthony was six he was working behind the counter at the Emporium.  Immediately after school each day, he promptly donned a white apron and started to work any number of chores that awaited him. He learned the value of hard work and the pleasure in serving others. When Anthony was about ten years old, he took on a job that became his favorite. 

On Saturdays and Sundays, laden with a large tray of sandwiches, drinks, and magazines, he boarded the trolley heading to Park Square, Boston. Passengers returning to Boston from Worcester reached happily for the boiled ham, chicken, and cheese sandwiches, Hershey bars, Teaberry and Beechnut gum, magazines, and bottles of Moxie. By the time the trolley reached White’s Corner in Southborough, Anthony’s tray would be empty, and his pockets would be jingling. There he would switch to a trolley returning to Worcester, happy and proud that he had served his customers by selling them what they wanted or needed.

In the early 1930s, while Anthony was in high school, his father Antonio purchased a cement block ‘garage’ at 193 Boston Turnpike.  The garage was his father’s prize possession, primarily because it was located on the Boston Turnpike. He had predicted that “50 years from now, there will be businesses all the way along Route 9, from Worcester to Boston, like one big city.”

During this period there were many changes in transportation taking place. Trolleys running along Route 9 had been replaced by buses.  More people were buying cars and cement had been added to Route 9 making at the first four-lane highway from Worcester to Boston. When Anthony graduated from high school in 1934, he saw an opportunity and decided to start a store. His parents let him use a vacant office on the front left side of the 193 Boston Turnpike property.

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Anthony Borgatti, Jr. 1934

During this period there were many changes in transportation taking place. Trolleys running along Route 9 had been replaced by buses.  More people were buying cars and cement had been added to Route 9 making at the first four-lane highway from Worcester to Boston. When Anthony graduated from high school in 1934, he saw an opportunity and decided to start a store. His parents let him use a vacant office on the front left side of the 193 Boston Turnpike property.

A short flight of steps led to a single door that opened into a small office with a high ceiling. Two large picture windows, one on each side of the door, faced the sidewalk. 

A black potbelly stove, standing in front of the window on the right hand side, was the sole source of heat. On the top of the stove, the black pipe rose towards the ceiling and vented outside through a hole in the cement block wall. To furnish the store he collected some empty wooden crates previously used as containers for large bottles of soda. He then placed a large box upside down to serve as a table. Around the table, he set up several other crates and empty nail kegs to serve as seats. To display his merchandise along two of the walls, he placed two wide boards supported by crates. He also used an old apothecary cabinet, the drawers of which would in the future hold all kinds of nuts, screws, bolts, and household items.

With a $35 loan from his mother, he purchased his first inventory: two batteries, three sets of spark plugs, two sets of points, three fan belts, and three tube patching kits. He also included tire chains and alcohol for antifreeze. His friends helped him carry his meager stock up the steps into the empty office, where he displayed his merchandise to its best advantage. They then all went outside to watch and cheer as the sign declaring ‘Shrewsbury Tire and Battery Service‘ went up over the door.

If you don't see it...

Above the various boxes of merchandise in the store, Anthony hung signs that read, “If you don’t see what you want, just ask; I will find it or get it for you.”  He probably didn’t realize at the time that people would ask for something other than auto parts. But when they did, he never hesitated to make good on his promise, nor did he stop to consider whether a store called Shrewsbury Tire and Battery Service should carry non-automotive products. From the beginning, he recognized the importance of obtaining what his customers wanted, as well as the importance of giving good service.

 

Customers took the signs seriously and continued to request new items. Neighbors came in looking for gardening tools, such as rakes, pitchforks, hoes, and chicken wire. Then came a request for floor wax and canning equipment, such as large pots, mason jars, and rubber rings. Anthony’s inventory probably appeared to be growing haphazardly, but underneath it all was his strong desire to meet his customers’ needs. As he responded to the requests, his automotive supply store began to offer a wider assortment of unrelated merchandise, thus making the beginnings of his variety store.

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In 1939, Anthony changed the name of his store to Spag’s Hardware Supply. His customers, however, never adopted the official name. Even when he first opened in 1934, they preferred something more simple, often referring to it as Spag’s Store. Eventually, customers simply shorten the store’s name to SPAG’S.

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Spag: An American Business Legend

 

by Elsa B. Tivnan & Catherine I. Nickerson

Worcester, MA: Chandler House Press, Copyright 1999

Search for the Book at your Local Library