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video: Spag’s Gone for Good—The Real History of the Legend

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Spag's is gone and now gone forever, but few know the full history of the iconic Worcester discount retailer. See one of Spag's TV ads.

GoLocal today takes a look back at the legendary store that was known throughout the region as Spag's for over seventy years.  

The Borgattis

Steven D'Agostino, a native Worcester-area resident and former contributor to GoLocal, provided his perspective and recollection of Spag's, which had been a Worcester fixture to so many -- and for so long

"Founded in 1934 by Anthony "Spag" Borgatti, Spag's was a discount-retail icon," said D'Agostino. "Until big-box stores Home Depot and HQ arrived on the scene in the '90s, the motto was "Spag's - No Bags." People put their stuff in either their own bags or in empty cardboard boxes they found throughout the store. Until the big-box stores came along, Spag's also had no shopping carts, Sunday hours, and credit cards."

D'Agostino continued, "Spag, who died in 1996, was a real character. He regularly wore brown khaki shirts and slacks, a brown cowboy hat, and a sheriff-like badge.  He maintained his inventory in on-site trailers, and didn't own the inventory until he cracked the lock. That way, he didn't need warehouses. His wife, Olive Borgatti, his business partner and a private pilot, died in 1990."

"After he died, one of his three daughters, Jean Borgatti, a Clark University anthropology professor, tried to run the business with the help of an outside business consultant. Eventually, she and her two sisters sold the business in 2004 to Jerry Ellis, founder of Building 19, whose mentor was Spag."

Remembering Spag's

On Wednesday, Sean Quinn with GoLocalWorcester spoke with Shrewsbury native Guy Ferrante, who "grew up in the shadow of the store" -- and Borgatti family.

Ferrante's mother worked at Spag's for 25 years, and his father attended Shrewsbury High School with Borgatti.

"He did things people didn't even know he did," said Ferrante. “I remember times when he would pay to have the funerals of some people from the area catered, out of his own pocket."

And according to Ferrante, Spag was as much of a celebrity as he was an entrepreneur.

“You could walk into the lobby of Spag’s and see Jack Nicklaus or the Three Stooges shaking Spag’s hand. People loved him,” said Ferrante.

Interview Excerpts

In 2002, D'Agostino had the opportunity to interview Jerry Ellis -- as well as Jean Borgatti and other family members, about Spag's for WICN and the Worcester Business Journal.  D'Agostino shared those transcripts with GoLocal.

D'Agostino sat down to talk with Building 19 founder Ellis, when he was in the process of buying his mentor's store. Here's an excerpt from that interview.

Steve: Jerry? Why Spags, why now?

Jerry: Why Spags? Spags was one of my heroes. And actually one of the great retail operations in the whole country. Probably if not the first, one of the very first in purest discounters. Great, great operations. He never got enough credit for what he accomplished. But he did an amazing, amazing job and he built a good organization, he’s got some very good people. And I always admired him.

Steve: So why Spags though. Why did you want to buy it?

Jerry: Only cause’ it was there. There’s nothing like it around. It has very similar culture, same feel. Slightly different line of business, but we hope we can blend that business. Let me make one correction, Building 19 is not buying Spags, my family is buying Spags and we are not converting it into a Building 19. That’s not the object.

Steve: Why will you be calling it Spag’s-19?

Jerry: We’ll be calling it Spag’s-19 because we like to play the game with the cards face up and everyone should know who it is and what it is. We’re going to try to continue in the Spags tradition. We’re going to, in fact, re-Spag the place, the building, bring back more of Mr. Spag. He was really a great hero. He really did an amazing amount of business in relatively a small space.

D'Agostino also sat down in 2002 to talk with Jean Borgatti and her great nephew-in-law, Joseph Kirby, who was serving as COO at the time, and asked them what made Spag's different from "big box" stores -- and what made them successful.

Steve: What's the difference between you, and Home Deport or Wal-Mart?

Kirby: The several thousand items we rotate in and out, and on promotion or special buys opportunity buys. By cutting down the basic items we have everyday gives us more room in the store, more room in the warehouse to be able to handle more of those opportunity buys, which should make it a more interesting shopping experience.

Steve: What are Spag's greatest strengths?

Borgatti: Basically as a member of the community. We’re a local store. We’re sensitive to local issues. We partner with local groups and we are able to, we hope, [provide] some kinds of personal service. To people looking for things. Who are having problems finding things. I certainly do a lot of research on products on e-mail requests that I get to locate things, and give people advice on how to use something if they have a question about it.

Steve: What advice do you have for other business owners, women business owners?

Borgatti: I don’t think women business owners are any different from other business owners. I was trained as an art historian. I fell into my business. I don’t think I’m the best person to give advice. I’ve been at it for 18 years, and I’ve worked my way through different parts of the business, trying very hard to find somebody else to do my job, so I could go on to do what I wanted to do more, or be able to do something else. I’ve never been able to work myself out of a job. They always keep finding things for me to do. I think one should know as much as possible about each part of the business. Clearly one of the strengths that I did bring is the ability to read and analysis. A good education should give you skills that are transferable to other situations. Those types of skills have held me in good stead.

Editor's Note: Portions of this story was originally published in 2013.


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